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.
For his part, Cardin said he believes the proposal needed slowing down.
"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.
Expressing the Republican view of the bill, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who serves on the agriculture committee, described the proposed EPA regulations as "burdensome and duplicative" and said that they do "absolutely nothing to further protect or enhance the environment."
But it's not just Republicans who back the bill.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan chairs the agriculture committee that passed the bill. Asked if she would attempt to bring the legislation to the floor over the objections of Cardin and Boxer, Stabenow said "it is my goal to see if we can't work with our colleagues to develop an agreement."
Cardin also said he hopes a deal can be reached.
But environmental and farming groups say there have been no substantive negotiations over the bill to date. Further, because the legislation is so narrowly crafted and responds to a court order, there is little middle ground on which a compromise could be struck -- the permits must either be required, or not.
That leaves supporters of the legislation with limited options: They can try to force a vote on the floor by rounding up the 60 votes needed to end debate on a bill, or they can try to stick the measure into some other piece of legislation that has a better shot of approval.
Rod Snyder, director of public policy with the National Corn Growers Association, said farming groups began rounding up votes earlier this year in anticipation of possible opposition.
"We believe that we have enough support in the Senate to get this done," Snyder said.
Scott Slesinger, the top lobbyist for the NRDC, said he isn't convinced that proponents have yet found the votes that would be needed to overcome Cardin's threatened filibuster -- but he acknowledged that they are close. Similar legislation often divides lawmakers not by party, but by whether or not they represent farm states.
The possibility of a showdown on the bill has prompted environmental groups like the NRDC to also step up pressure on lawmakers, he said.
"It's just appalling to say 'We're going to put more pesticides in the water,'" Slesinger said. "We're trying to get the word out -- in particular to people who would normally support environmental positions -- how awful this bill is."