Senate Committee to Lose Jurisdiction over Chemical Plant Security

The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee is expected to lose jurisdiction next year over legislation requiring security improvements at chemical plants, bringing new lawmakers to the debate and making the fate of the contentious bill uncertain in the next Congress.

The development comes as committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) is considering dropping or revising his chemical security bill, and is seeking an audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, before deciding whether mandatory regulations are needed for facilities housing hazardous materials. At the same time, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) is expected to renew his push next year for an industry-opposed chemical security plan, congressional sources say.

The change in committee jurisdiction was prompted by a Senate resolution approved last month before lawmakers adjourned for the election. The resolution centralizes homeland security oversight in the Governmental Affairs Committee, which is run by Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Democrat Joe Lieberman (CT).

Following this fall's elections -- when the GOP increased its majority in the chamber -- Republicans will likely have two or three more members than Democrats on the panel. But Senate sources say no final decisions have been made about the makeup of the committee when the 109th Congress convenes in January. The Governmental Affairs Committee in the past has operated on a fairly bipartisan basis, while legislation in the environment panel often gets bogged down in partisan gridlock.

Because provisions for EPA oversight were dropped from Inhofe's chemical security bill, as well as the Corzine plan, sources say the government oversight committee will likely have sole jurisdiction over the bill.

But the new role of the committee raises questions about the fate of the bill because the panel to date has not been central to the debate over enhanced security requirements at chemical plants, while the issue is certain to reemerge in the next congressional session. The lack of mandatory federal requirements at chemical plants was cited by Democrats during the presidential and congressional campaigns to criticize the homeland security record of Republicans and President Bush. Republicans have argued that stringent security regulations are unnecessary because the chemical industry is moving forward with its own plans to reduce plant vulnerabilities.

The expanded role of the governmental affairs committee could be a blow to the chemical industry, since it has worked closely with Inhofe in developing a legislative plan that endorses voluntary security efforts that individual companies have adopted. "The committee chairmanship [on government affairs] may not be familiar with everything we are doing to increase security," one industry official says. "We'll have to meet with them about that."

Environmentalists and their Democratic allies on the environment committee, including Lieberman, have strongly supported Corzine's plan, saying it would reduce potential risks to local communities by requiring that companies use safer alternative chemicals.

One environmentalist says he had expected Collins to support a pared-down chemical security bill that Corzine had threatened to push as an amendment to intelligence reform legislation approved last month by the Senate. But Corzine's plan never came up for a vote amid strong industry opposition.

Still, activists say the change in committee jurisdiction presents a new opportunity next session. "Maybe we can go back and start with a clean slate and put together a strong bill," the environmentalist says.

While Corzine and Inhofe do not sit on the governmental affairs panel, both have allies who would likely side with their respective views on chemical security.

For instance, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who was an early proponent of chemical security requirements, will likely work with Corzine to develop a strategy for the next legislative session, according to a congressional source close to Launtenberg. And Lieberman has joined other Democrats in the past in criticizing Inhofe's bill.

"He will absolutely bring back the chemical security bill next year," a spokesman for Corzine says, adding that the Democrat will work with Lautenberg and others to devise a strategy for passage next session. His bill has failed repeatedly to win the support of the Senate, but passed the environment panel unanimously when the Democrats controlled the chamber in 2002.

On the other hand, industry sources say Republican Sens. George Voinovich (OH) and Richard Shelby (AL), who both sit on the governmental affairs panel, will likely oppose any legislation that would impose strict security requirements on the chemical industry.

Inhofe's bill passed the environment committee by a party-line vote last year, but never made it to the Senate floor. A spokesman for Inhofe says the lawmaker will soon make a formal request to GAO to evaluate Department of Homeland Security and industry security efforts to determine whether legislation would be necessary.