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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Slow and Steady in the Senate

Air Date: Week of

Veteran Republican Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont says there are definitely some changes on the horizon for environmental laws. But Jeffords, who has just become head of the Senate Environment Committee, tells Peter Thomson, there are enough moderate Republicans like him to keep environmental protection strong.


NUNLEY: The environmental philosophy of conservatives like Linda Smith will likely take firm hold in a House of Representatives where a strongly conservative Republican leadership can pass legislation almost at will. But it may be quite a different story in the Senate, despite the ascendance of Republicans to the majority othere as well. A sizable group of moderate Republicans holds the balance of power in the Senate, and they often vote with Democrats on environmental issues. And then there's the Filibuster rule, which essentially requires any contested bill to have a three-fifths majority or at least 60 votes to pass. Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords is one of those key moderate Republicans. He was returned to Congress in November and now serves on the Energy and Natural Resources and Appropriations Committees. Senator Jeffords told Living on Earth's Peter Thomson that the Filibuster rule could make a big difference in issues affecting the environment.

JEFFORDS: This will be protection for many sweeping reforms in the environmental movement or for environmental goals or programs or whatever, because there are only 53 Republicans and then you've got a half a dozen or up to 10 moderates who will go against some of these desires of some more conservative Republicans, plus you've got all the Democrats. So they're a long ways from 60 votes in order to pass things which are really not sitting well with many of the members of the Senate. So you won't have to worry about anything getting pushed through the Senate.

THOMSON: Do you expect to see any kind of showdown with the House on legislation that they pass and send to you, or which you pass and send to them?

JEFFORDS: I think we may. Again, getting back to just how well the moderates are able to influence the - and how close the Democrats will come towards trying to make a consensus with the Republican moderates - but then, when you get into a Presidential election, it could get very dicey and very political as we go along. And in that case, it's difficult for the moderates to work.

THOMSON: I wanted to ask you the same question we asked of Representative Smith a few moments ago. That's in regard to the criticism by some that the Contract With America amounts to a stealth environmental policy. That calls for risk-benefit analysis, banning unfunded mandates, protection of property rights, et cetera. Would amount to a wholesale rollback in environmental policy. Have you heard that criticism?

JEFFORDS: Oh, sure I have. And I think it's in the eyes of the beholder, really. I don't read it into that. And there again, the moderates will be the ones that will have the say in just how far things will go. But there are areas that you can make a good case that we should loosen up a little bit on the regulations and more flexibility for the states in particular, which I tend to agree with. Because there are different circumstances in different states. So I think that, again, it's fear on the parts of many. But all I can hope is that they will count on us, and that we will produce a reasonable consensus on some of these delicate issues and that it won't be scorch policy, whatever you want to say.

THOMSON: I want to ask you about a few specific issues. We have several large environmental bills that were stalled in the last Congress. Some of them have been stalled for quite a while, and are going to come up for reauthorization again. And over which there's been a lot of talk about the need for changes. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund law. Do you think that this new Congress can successfully rewrite those laws which are up for reauthorization while maintaining their basic goals?

JEFFORDS: In the reauthorization area we could have some real problems. Though hopefully we can get them extended as we have traditionally. But it's going to be a very, very rough area.

THOMSON: There's been some talk coming out of the House, I believe, about actually zero funding laws which have not be reauthorized. Do you think that that's something which is likely to happen?

JEFFORDS: I think you will see that there will be an attempt to use the Appropriations Committee to do those things which can't be done in the Authorizing Committees. That's one reason I shifted to the Appropriations Committee this year, because I recognize that with Mark Hatfield and Arlen Specter and myself on there, 3 pretty good moderates, it will be very difficult to de-fund things if we can work with the other side of the aisle. Then the House side, I think it may be quite different. Again, getting back to the power that the Speaker and the Chairman have over there, again I think you're going to have to be looking to the Senate to try and get these things. Then you're going to go to conference, and it's going to be tough.

THOMSON: Well, do you think, for instance, that we might see an Endangered Species Act which is reauthorized, but with no funding to back it up?

JEFFORDS: Well, that's quite possible. I would hope not. But again, of course, the basic laws will be established, and then it'll be up to the environmental community to bring whatever private legal actions they can to try and enforce the Acts. I hope it doesn't work that way.

THOMSON: As far as the environment is concerned, what do you think will have to happen in this 104th Congress for it to have been a success?

JEFFORDS: First of all, the public's going to have to speak out as never before, and I speak, of course, [of] primarily the environmental members. Just as a word of wisdom, I notice that even in my Vermont, which is considered one of the most environmentally pro-active states in the nation, that the concern on the environment was hardly on the radar screen this past election. And that concerns me greatly, because there has been sort of a lulling of the feelings about some of these environmental matters, and concern that we've gone to far. So unless the environmental leaders out in the public get active and really mobilize, we could have a hard time trying to ensure that a lot of damage isn't' done to the environmental laws.

NUNLEY: Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Appropriations Committees. He spoke with Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.



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