WASHINGTON -- A maverick band of Republican environmentalists scored their first major victory over the party's leadership yesterday when the House voted to preserve the enforcement powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.
On an upset vote of 212-206, the 51 Republican mavericks joined forces with the majority of House Democrats. Together they blocked legislation that would strip the EPA of its authority to guard against a wide range of pollutants, including toxic smokestack emissions, dumping of raw sewage into public waterways and pesticides in food.
"It just shows what you can do if you take the time to educate people," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland's Eastern Shore, one of the leaders of the insurgent band of Republicans who have been lobbying the issue for days.
"I think this is going to give us a good chance now to win support for other environmental legislation."
The effort to protect the EPA was supported by two other Maryland Republicans -- Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County -- as well as by all four Maryland Democrats.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, was the only member of the state delegation to back the move by GOP leaders and many Republican freshmen to rein in a regulatory agency that they contend has spun out of control in its zeal to prevent pollution.
The environmental agency still faces the loss of one-third of its budget in the spending bill being debated in the House, and the threat of other House-passed curbs on its powers.
But yesterday's vote marked the first big bump in the road for the EPA's opponents, which include the business community and agriculture interests, as well as city and state governments.
Some environmentalists said anti-regulatory lawmakers had clearly overplayed their hand.
"This was the first indication that there are limits on how far the House will go," said Tim Searchinger, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. "But this bill was so extreme . . . how do you get excited when someone decides not to cut your head off?"
The legislation at issue came in the form of 17 provisions attached to a $79 billion spending bill that supplies money for next year to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Veterans Administration and two dozen other agencies, including the EPA.
The provisions would bar the EPA from using money to enforce specific regulations, including those pertaining to arsenic in drinking water, lead poisoning, industrial pollutant discharges and storm runoff.
During the debate, supporters of the legislation argued that the EPA had become a rogue agency, using its enforcement powers to harass and intimidate small businesses and farmers. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip, called it "the Gestapo of government."
But many of the regulations the GOP leaders attacked have also been the basis for environmental success stories -- such as helping to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast beaches, as well as toxic waste dumps and forests threatened by acid rain.
The Republican mavericks appealed to legislators from affected regions to keep those protections in place or face the wrath of constituents who put a high value on air and water quality.
"Call home, call your local governments, call your constituents, find out from them how important these things are," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a former governor of Delaware who told
Republican colleagues about having to close beaches because of waste that had washed south from other states.
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican who wrote an amendment to preserve the EPA's authority, said he believes the 51 Republicans who supported his effort did not want to be seen by voters as anti-environment.
"We just worked and worked and worked at it," Mr. Boehlert said of the lobbying effort.
There were already signs that the anti-regulatory provisions in the spending bill would have been stripped by the Senate.
In fact, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Robert L. Livingston Jr., seemed relieved by the House vote because his negotiations with the Senate will be easier if he doesn't have to defend the anti-environmental provisions.
But Mr. DeLay and House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas are expected to seek a second vote on the issue Monday after a weekend of arm-twisting.
It may not take much to turn the tally around because 17 House members did not vote.
Reversing that vote could threaten support for the overall spending bill, though, said Sharon Buccino, of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"I think the special interests really underestimated the popularity of these environmental laws," she said.