115th Congress opens Tuesday; assaults on Obama environment regulations, focus on REINS Act expected

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate will be sworn in today as the Republican-dominated new Congress begins its work, which is expected to include efforts to derail a number of Obama administration environmental regulations and alter the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

The GOP will hold a 241-194 majority in the House of Representatives, down seven seats from the last Congress. Republicans will dominate each of the key committees that deal with environmental policy matters. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said last June that he hopes to rescind many Obama administration regulations by statute, including the Clean Power Plan and “all climate change regulations under the Clean Air Act.”

Ryan has also explicitly called for nullification of the Waters of the United States rule, which extends Clean Water Act jurisdiction to water bodies that are hydrologically connected to rivers and lakes.

Last month, the speaker said that he would fight to rescind Obama’s removal of Atlantic and Arctic ocean waters from oil exploration and drilling.

On the Appropriations Committee, where so-called riders to bills that allow the federal government to spend money have often sought to undermine or nullify protective regulations, New Jersey’s Rodney Frelinghuysen will become chair. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s promises to lower funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal renewable energy programs at the Department of Energy, and climate science research at NASA would be considered by this committee, as well as the Budget Committee.

Rep. Gregory P. Walden, R-Ore., will chair the Energy and Commerce Committee, while public lands opponent Rob Bishop of Utah will continue to helm the Natural Resources Committee.

Walden, who was first elected in 1998 and is the only Republican in Oregon’s Congressional delegation, has said little about his specific plans for the Energy and Commerce Committee. A statement released after his selection as chair on Dec. 1 said that he would push the “Better Way Agenda” proposed by Ryan last year.

Walden’s website says that he supports the REINS Act, legislation that would subject many federal regulations to a requirement of Congressional approval, and that he opposes designation of new wilderness areas in Oregon. Walden’s website also highlights his advocacy of legislative changes intended to increase timber production in national forests.

A July video statement by Walden celebrated passage of legislation that precluded listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act and designation of a national monument in rural Oregon.

The Natural Resources Committee is expected to consider bills that would reduce or eliminate the President’s authority to declare national monuments on federal land.

Bishop reportedly met with Trump’s transition team last month to discuss ways to roll back President Barack Obama’s declaration of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, as well as other decisions Obama has made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The question whether a President lacks the authority to revoke a predecessor’s designation of a national monument has not been tested in court, though a U.S. attorney general’s opinion from the 1930s indicates that he does not have that power. Congress would likely have to pass legislation if it desires to alter or rescind any of Mr. Obama’s national monument designations.

Texas Republican Lamar S. Smith will continue to lead the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which has proven to be an active agent of the GOP’s anti-climate science agenda in recent years.

Among the first priorities to be considered by the House is the proposed REINS Act. That bill has been passed by the Republican-dominated House at least three times, most recently late in 2016, but has been blocked in the Senate each time. It is not clear whether its prospects in the Senate are any better this time than in the past, given that there will be fewer Republicans in the Senate during the 115th Congress than in the just-concluded 114th Congress.

Both chambers are likely to consider Congressional Review Act resolutions to overturn Obama administration environmental regulations.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., who remains in office until Jan. 20, will preside over the ceremony welcoming new senators at 12 pm EST. The Republicans will have a 52-48 margin in that chamber.

The Environment and Public Works Committee of the Senate gets a new chair, Wyoming’s John Barrasso, and new ranking member, Delaware’s Thomas Carper.

Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski will again chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with Maria Cantwell of Washington serving as ranking member.

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