WASHINGTON ——Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a longtime advocate of the Chesapeake Bay, is wading into the high-profile debate over the federal regulation of pesticides -- instantly putting him at odds with fellow Democrats while potentially raising his national profile on environmental issues.
Maryland's junior senator is threatening to filibuster a proposal to limit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's oversight of pesticides that end up in the nation's waterways, including the bay. The move, which at the very least will delay the legislation, has set off a behind-the-scenes scramble among advocates who hope to override him if he carries through on the threat.
"Pesticides have a direct impact on our water," Cardin, 67, said in an interview. "The hold allows us to use a more deliberative process and that gives us more of a chance to review" the legislation.
His decision to hold up the legislation, which sailed through the House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote in March and had recently been approved by a Senate committee, was the latest effort by Cardin to address clean water, an area in which the veteran lawmaker has taken a growing interest since coming to the Senate in 2007.
In April, he chaired a hearing on the natural gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing. Federal and state officials are studying the environmental impact of "fracking."
A month later, he introduced a bill to require that new federal highways capture polluted runoff after a storm, arguing that every inch of rain that falls on a mile of two-lane highway produces 52,000 gallons of contaminated water.
Finally, Cardin expects to reintroduce a comprehensive proposal this year that he says will strengthen cleanup of the Chesapeake. That measure, which failed to pass last year, requires states to craft plans to meet 2025 cleanup targets and would then prod officials by threatening to cut off federal funds.
Observers say Cardin is following the example set by past Maryland lawmakers -- such as former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. and former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, both Republicans -- who have used the Chesapeake as a springboard to a national role on water quality issues.Cardin generally agrees with that assessment, noting that he sought and received a spot on the Environment and Public Works Committee when he arrived in the Senate in 2007.
"The reason, quite frankly, was the Chesapeake Bay," said Cardin, who now chairs the subcommittee on water and wildlife.
The environmental news service Greenwire recently described Cardin as "the Senate's 'King of Water.'"
"He's really emerged as the go-to person in the United States Senate on clean water," said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But while his efforts have made him popular with environmentalists, his moves have been less well received by farmers and other groups that argue the increased federal regulations are overly intrusive. His hold on the pesticide bill, which he made in tandem with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, is only the latest example of frayed relations.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Bob Gibbs, an Ohio Republican, in a response to a 2009 federal appeals court decision that required farmers and others using pesticides to obtain a special permit from the EPA and submit to more strict regulations. The implementation of that ruling, which has repeatedly been delayed, is set for October.
Agricultural groups, including the American Farm Bureau, note that farmers already are required to obtain a license from the EPA to use those same pesticides -- a practice that will continue. The groups say that requiring farmers to seek both a permit and a license is duplicative and potentially costly.
"It's a redundant regulation," said Keith Menchey of the National Cotton Council of America, which supports the bill and will lobby against Cardin to try to get it approved. "It's going to cause a lot of costs with no additional environmental benefit."
The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups counter that the EPA's current licensing process is not as rigorous as the regulations to obtain a permit.
Cardin faces reelection next year. One of his early Republican challengers, Severna Park's Daniel Bongino, said Congress should let the economy recover more fully before considering new environmental regulations. "Bankrupting these farmers is not going to do the environment any good," Bongino said.
The legislation passed the House on a 292-130 vote, with 57 Democrats joining all Republicans in support. Maryland's six Democrats in the House opposed the measure. The proposal was approved June 21 by voice vote in the Senate's agriculture committee.