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Republicans' surprise comeback in opposing EPA rules

110315 WOTUS vote wins js
Republicans passed a resolution Tuesday to nullify the EPA's far-reaching Waters of the U.S. rule. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Senate Republicans in a confusing array of votes Tuesday managed to succeed in passing a resolution that rolls back the Environmental Protection Agency's far-reaching rule governing waterways.

Just hours after Democrats managed to block a key procedural vote on a related bill to rescind the EPA's Waters of the United States rules, Senate Republicans, aided by some Democrats, managed to pass a resolution of dispproval that would nullify the regulations.

The resolution is grounded in the Congressional Review Act that gives Congress the ability to oppose a federal program with a simple majority, and not the 60-vote threshold that is typically needed to proceed. The resolution, introduced by Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, was approved 55-43. The earlier vote on a bill introduced by Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, under Senate procedural rules, was squashed by Democrats 57-41. That vote wasn't on the bill itself, but its ability to proceed to a vote on the floor.

Ahead of the vote on the Ernst resolution, the White House issued a veto threat similar to one it issued earlier Tuesday on the Barrasso legislation.

"The agencies' rulemaking, grounded in science and the law, is essential to ensure clean water for future generations, and is responsive to calls for rulemaking from the Congress, industry, and community stakeholders as well as decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court," the White House said, assuring the Senate that President Obama would veto the resolution if it makes it to his desk.

The EPA rule extends the EPA's authority over ditches and other small bodies of water on private lands by redefining what constitutes a waterway, critics argue.

Meanwhile, states managed to get a federal court to stay the rule. A 2-1 decision by the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last month will keep the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from implementing the rule while the court determines if it has jurisdiction to decide if the rule is a legal use of federal power.