WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives voted 218-189 yesterday to bar the Bush administration from easing rules on the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water beyond those set under President Clinton.
The move was another setback for the administration on environmental policy and a defeat for the House Republican leadership; 19 Republicans joined with 199 Democrats.
If it is upheld by the Senate, which is uncertain, yesterday's vote would allow the administration to choose only between putting the Clinton rules in place or tightening them further, thus guaranteeing at least an 80 percent reduction in the arsenic standard by 2006, when the rules are to take effect.
The Bush administration announced in March that it would suspend arsenic rules established under Clinton, which set the standard at 10 parts per billion. At that time and since, it was questioned whether the Clinton decision was based on an adequate understanding of the level at which arsenic in drinking water might pose an unacceptable risk to health.
Yesterday, the White House criticized the House vote, saying that it would pre-empt a fair and reasonable review under way. While President Bush wanted to pursue an approach based on "sound science," said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, "it appears some are moving forward to score points for partisan politics based on sound bites."
The White House has promised that its review would set a standard no higher than 20 parts per billion - well below the current level of 50 parts per billion - and could result in rules lower than those imposed by Clinton.
But the idea that Bush might ease the rules for arsenic has been criticized by his opponents and used as a symbol of what they say is the administration's callous attitude toward the environment.
Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic whip and the chief proponent of the measure passed yesterday, said it would "establish a higher standard for America's drinking water, giving American families both peace of mind and healthier lives."
Among Republicans who defended the administration's approach, Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska assailed what he called the "heated rhetoric, wild exaggerations and sound-bite politics" used by critics of the Bush plan. He noted that the plan had not delayed the effective date of any arsenic standard and could result in tighter rules.
Arsenic is a substance that occurs naturally, and much of the arsenic found in water supplies enters from the ground. But arsenic in drinking water has also been linked to cancer, and in a 1999 review the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the 50 parts-per-billion standard, set in 1942, be revised downward "as quickly as possible."
The 10 parts-per-billion standard for drinking water set by the Clinton administration is the same as that set by the World Health Organization and most European countries. Those facts were noted repeatedly in House debate yesterday by Democrats who were trying to portray Bush as condoning a possible easing of health standards to a level more typical of developing countries.
Yesterday's vote was the latest in a string congressional setbacks for Bush and his team over issues such as offshore oil drilling, mining and energy exploration in national monuments. In each case, handfuls of moderate Republicans have voted with Democrats to block administration plans.
Among those environmental votes, yesterday's might be a less substantive blow than the congressional actions that forced the administration to scale back its plans for energy exploration off the Florida coast, as an example. But as a political matter, the latest vote might prove more potent, given arsenic's public image, and Bush's critics were beginning yesterday to cast themselves as victors in a battle to prevent him from subjecting millions of Americans to danger.
"Today's arsenic vote sends a clear, bipartisan message to President Bush: The American public doesn't want people messing around with their drinking water and environment," said Erik D. Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
According to estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency, as many as 3.5 million Americans, most of them in rural areas, would be affected by a decision to raise the arsenic standard from the level set by the Clinton administration to the maximum level being considered by Bush.