Air Pollution Divides: Republicans Rebel At Rand Paul Bill To Make Their States The 'Tailpipe'

WASHINGTON -- This time, a Tea Party-backed measure to let pollution increase in the name of saving jobs is running into Republican opposition. It's coming from East Coast senators, who are not keen on Midwestern power plants fouling their air.

Republicans in the House have passed numerous bills over the past year aimed at gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and anti-pollution protections, including at least 170 separate votes targeting environmental regulations. A number of these bills made it to the Senate and failed there amid filibusters.

On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is set to bring up a new piece of legislation that needs just a simple majority to pass -- and it probably would if it weren't for a number of Republicans who approve of air pollution limits under an enhanced version of a Bush-era clean air rule.

Paul's measure is an attempt to halt the EPA's cross-state air pollution rule, a court-ordered refinement of a similar rule first written in 2005. His bill invokes the Congressional Review Act, which allows the Senate to reject new federal rules with a simple majority vote, instead of the usual 60-vote threshold that is now virtually required in the Senate.

Paul's legislation has attracted several Democrats -- including Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- which would give the bill a shot if it weren't for Republicans in states that would be victimized by the fallout.

"New Hampshire is a downwind state ... and I think it's very important that we're not the tailpipe for out-of-state power plants," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), another Tea Party favorite, after the GOP policy caucus on Tuesday. "It's essentially pollution coming into New Hampshire."

She was not alone in her objections. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) took to the Senate floor to complain about Paul's move.

"Tennesseans admire much about our Kentucky neighbors. We admire their bluegrass, we admire their basketball, we admire their distinguished senators," Alexander said. "But Tennesseans don't want Kentucky's state income tax, and we don't want Kentucky's dirty air."

Alexander noted that the reason for the cross-state air pollution rule was that states like Tennessee and North Carolina had sued and won.

Paul and other opponents of the rule argue that it will cost $2.4 billion for power companies to comply and will destroy jobs at a time when the economy is struggling. They also say it sets overly ambitious goals and imposes an unreasonable time frame for compliance.

The Obama administration's energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal, has argued that the flip side of the corporate cost is that scientists believe 34,000 people will die prematurely every year if the rule is blocked.

Environmental advocates find the calculus by the rule's opponents unsupportable and short-sighted.

"These health safeguards will deliver up to $280 billion in annual benefits to the American people, compared to $2.4 billion in compliance costs to polluting coal-burning power plants, yielding benefits that outweigh costs by an astonishing 116 to 1," wrote John Walke of the National Resources Defense Council on his blog.

"Many politicians and industry lobbyists claim to support benefit-cost analysis; how much would health benefits to Americans have to outweigh polluter compliance costs before Senator Paul and his resolution's co-sponsors would support clean air safeguards? 200 to 1? 500 to 1?" Walke asked.

Should Paul cobble together enough Democrats to make up for the loss of Republicans -- an unlikely feat -- the White House has threatened to veto the bill.

The bigger fear of environmental advocates is that such a measure could wind up in a must-pass piece of legislation, such as the super committee's budget-cutting plan.