WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprise victory for Republicans, the Senate voted to overturn a Biden administration rule requiring rigorous environmental review of major infrastructure projects such as highways, pipelines and oil wells — a result helped by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin, a key player on energy and climate issues and a swinging vote in the tightly divided Senate, joined Republicans in backing the measure, which was approved 50-47. The vote comes as Manchin has proposed a separate slate of legislation to speed up federal approval for major projects in exchange for his support for a Democratic bill to tackle climate change.
Republicans voted unanimously to overturn Biden’s leave rule, while Manchin was the only Democrat to do so. Three senators were absent: Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
The vote sends the measure to the Democratic-controlled House, where it is unlikely to move forward.
Still, the vote signaled strong Senate support for action to reform the often onerous federal permitting process, which can take up to eight to 10 years for highways and other major projects. Streamlining the federal review is a top priority for the Manchins and the GOP that is not shared by most Democrats.
Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, sponsored the measure to overturn the Biden rule, saying new regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, will further bog down the permitting process and delay the critical infrastructure projects that the country needs.
The Biden rule — which reverses a Trump administration action relaxing environmental reviews — requires regulators to consider likely impacts on climate change and nearby communities before approving major projects. The new requirement “will add to the bureaucracy” that prevents major infrastructure projects from being approved in a timely manner, Sullivan said.
While President Joe Biden has called infrastructure a priority — and pushed for a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure law passed last year — the new NEPA rule “actually makes it harder to build projects.” infrastructure” in the United States, Sullivan said.
“The only people, in my opinion, who really like this new system are the far-left radical environmentalist groups who don’t want to build anything … and probably the Chinese Communist Party,” he told the Senate. China and other competitors “probably like the fact that it takes 9 to 10 years to clear a bridge in the United States,” Sullivan said.
The White House has threatened a veto if the measure reaches the president’s desk.
“This action would slow the construction of U.S. infrastructure, waste taxpayer resources on poorly designed projects, and result in unnecessary and costly litigation and conflict that would delay clearance,” the White House said in a statement Thursday.
Manchin countered that “for years I’ve worked to fix our broken permit system, and I know the administration’s (Biden’s) approach to permits is completely wrong.”
Manchin called Thursday’s vote “a step in the right direction,” but said the measure “probably died when it got to the House.” That’s why I’ve fought so hard to get a commitment (from Democratic leaders) on bipartisan permit reform, which is the only way to solve this problem.