WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives approved far-reaching changes to the Clean Water Act yesterday, a powerful signal that conservatives have the votes to carry their crusade against federal regulations into territories governed by the nation's core environmental laws.
It was the first vote in the 104th Congress to rewrite whole sections of a major conservation law, and its backers fought off almost every attempt to amend their proposal.
The legislation would give more authority to the states and more weight to economic considerations when water quality standards are set and when farmers, businesses and sewage treatment plants are told how to meet them.
The vote for final passage was 240-185, with 45 conservative Democrats voting for the bill and 34 moderate Republicans against it.
In the Maryland delegation, only Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-6th, voted for the bill. Voting against it were Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-2nd; Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st; Constance A. Morella, R-8th; Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd; Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th; Kweisi Mfume, D-7th; and Albert R. Wynn, D-4th.
The losers in yesterday's House vote, anticipating votes that lie ahead on proposals ranging from revising the Endangered Species Act to rewriting the Superfund law for the cleanup of toxic waste sites, took some consolation in mustering a minority large enough to sustain a veto. President Clinton has promised to veto anything resembling the legislation approved by the House yesterday.
Rep. Bud Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Public Works Committee and was the measure's chief sponsor, called it "a historic environmental bill, a sound environmental bill, a balanced environmental bill."
But Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, called provisions of the bill "extreme" and said: "The House has once again passed the burden on to the Senate. I do think 34 Republicans voting no indicates, even for Republicans, a greater recognition of how extreme these provisions are."
The Senate has not yet begun to consider the Clean Water Act and is unlikely to accept many elements of the bill that the House approved.
"We'll take up a water bill, but not that one," said Sen. John H. Chafee, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee.
The Rhode Island Republican, who has a long record of supporting environmental protection measures, said that he believes the existing water law is "in pretty good shape."
The House rejected an amendment offered by Mr. Gilchrest that would have dampened the bill's rollback of federal wetlands protections.
Mr. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican whose district straddles the Chesapeake Bay, sought to eliminate two provisions of the Clean Water bill that he warned would eliminate federal protection for all but a "fraction" of the nation's wetlands.
The bill greatly narrows the federal definition of wetlands, requiring among other things that the land be flooded for at least 21 days during the growing season.
It also requires that wetlands be classified according to their ecological value, and retains full protection from development only for lands that get the top rating.
"This bill blindly subscribes to the 'wetter is better' idea," Mr. Gilchrest said, noting that property could be a swamp for most of the year and still not be considered a wetland under the bill. He argued that many drier lands around the bay and elsewhere in the nation function as wetlands, protecting water quality and preventing flooding.
"At the very least, let's keep a scientific definition of wetlands in place," Mr. Gilchrest said, noting that the National Academy of Sciences rejected last week the House bill's definition and classification scheme.
His amendment failed, however, by a vote of 180 to 247.
The House did adopt, by voice vote, another amendment offered by Mr. Gilchrest that retains federal protection for isolated wetlands. Such marshy areas, often far from rivers and lakes, are nevertheless important habitat for migrating ducks and geese.
Throughout the debate, the bill's sponsors whipped up an anti-regulatory fervor by heaping calumny on officials of the EPA and others who set the standards, issue the permits and designate the wetlands governed by the bill.
Mr. Shuster, the bill's principal sponsor, called them an "environmental Gestapo."
A few House members took exception to the strong language.
"The references to Gestapos and heavy-handed tactics by the federal agencies fuels the gross national paranoia, which we see so much of in this country," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
"I beg my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to temper their rhetoric and realize that some people who have violence in their hearts listen to those code words."