WASHINGTON - House Republicans voted Friday to cramp President Barack Obama's environmental policies in favor of increased coal production, in a parting jab before returning home to campaign. The bill would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from restricting greenhouse gases, quash stricter fuel efficiency standards for cars and give states control over disposal of harmful coal byproducts.
The "Stop the War on Coal Act," passed on a mainly party-line vote, is a companion to GOP campaign ads accusing Obama and Democrats of costing the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs while driving up energy prices. Democrats dismissed the legislation as political theatrics, pointing out that almost all the provisions had already passed in the House.
Nineteen Democrats - mostly from coal-producing and conservative-leaning states - broke ranks to join Republicans in the 233-175 vote. The legislation is dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate, and Obama has already threatened a veto should it ever reach his desk.
Republicans and conservative groups are working to saddle down-ballot Democrats with Obama's environmental policies, which are unpopular in energy-producing battleground states such as Virginia and Ohio. They argue that no source of jobs or affordable energy can be spared amid a still-weak economy, with unemployment at 8.1 percent, and reliance on oil from the tumultuous Middle East.
New fuel economy standards that cut tailpipe emissions - set for model years 2017-2025 - would be gutted by the act. So would the EPA's ability to regulate gases blamed for global warming. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling cleared the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under its authority to control air pollutants, but the legislation amends the Clean Air Act to preclude any taxes or regulations on greenhouse gases.
Another provision would forbid the Interior Department from issuing any new rules that threaten mining jobs or U.S. coal production through the end of 2013. The package also would create a new agency to study how EPA rules harm jobs and energy prices.
The measure also would give states broad control over disposal of coal ash, a waste product from power plants, and protection of water quality near mining operations. Also nixed would be EPA standards for mercury and air toxins and a "good neighbor" rule that protects states that are downwind from polluting power plants.
Rep. Bill Johnson, who authored the act, challenged Obama to follow through on his State of the Union vow to support an all-of-the-above approach to American energy.
"This is not about climate change," said Johnson, R-Ohio. "If it's a public health, public safety, national security issue, certainly common sense regulations are appropriate. Regulations that are based on fact and science - not based on political rhetoric or an environmentalist agenda."
The measure's passage dovetailed with a broadside against Obama in battleground Ohio, a coal-mining state. Republican Mitt Romney's campaign released a television ad Wednesday entitled "War on Coal," in which a coal worker declares that "Obama's ruining the coal industry."
Coal makes for dicey politics for Democrats in energy-producing West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana and other states. The 2010 defeat of former Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, a 14-term lawmaker from a coal-heavy district, was largely attributed to a vote supporting cap-and-trade.
Energy issues have flared in several competitive House and Senate races this year, with Democrats seeking distance from Obama and their party. In West Virginia, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, facing re-election in November, has embraced the GOP's "war on coal" language and echoed their attacks on the EPA. Both candidates in North Dakota's tossup Senate race have criticized Obama for hampering energy production.
Democrats voting with Republicans Friday to support the package included Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Mark Critz of Pennsylvania and Ben Chandler of Kentucky.
The White House, warning that the bills wouldn't survive Obama's veto pen, said the legislation rolls back public health safeguards and measures that will save Americans money - and not only on their gas bills. Obama officials pegged the annual savings from the health benefits of the rules at up to $90 billion.
Debate over the measures exposed a growing rift between those in Congress who champion cheap energy regardless of the source and those whose constituencies demand they stand up for coal. Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Republicans were breaching their own principles by favoring coal over natural gas, the price of which has plummeted in recent years.
"The Republicans are saying there is a war on coal, but the only battle coal is losing is in the free market to natural gas," Markey said.
U.S. coal production is actually at its highest levels in two decades, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But American power plants are burning less of it, meaning more and more coal is being exported to other countries. Meanwhile, more efficient extraction methods have reduced the number of coal miners employed in the U.S.