WASHINGTON -- After an intense lobbying duel, the Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved new rules easing clean-air controls for industrial plants, turning back a Democratic proposal to freeze those regulations.
At issue were new rules recently announced by the Bush administration that grant smokestack industries -- such as petroleum refining, chemical processing and auto making -- flexibility to upgrade aging equipment without being forced to take strict antipollution measures previously required under the Clean Air Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled the rules in November; they are to take effect in March. The rules are considered one of the most important modifications to the nation's clean-air regulations in the last decade.
The Democratic amendment sought to delay implementation for six months to allow researchers from the National Academy of Sciences to review the issue. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who proposed the amendment and who has joined the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, argued that the rules would not stand up to independent scrutiny.
"The Bush administration doesn't want people to see what these rules would do because they are afraid of the truth," he said. "President Bush's gift to polluters promises more smog, more soot and more premature deaths."
But Republicans said that the rules had been studied long enough and that they would spur industry to voluntarily cut pollution.
The new rules, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said, "will actually cut emissions of tens of thousands of tons per year of volatile organic compounds," reducing ozone, smog and hazardous air pollutants. "Our families will suffer fewer cases of premature mortality, asthma and other respiratory diseases."
The 50-46 vote against the amendment was one of the most suspenseful in the GOP-led Senate so far this year.
It came as part of the Senate's consideration of a $390-billion bill to fund a broad range of nonmilitary programs through Sept. 30. Senators plowed through numerous amendments Wednesday in hopes of finishing the bill as early as today.
In other significant votes, the Senate approved a $3-billion GOP proposal for farm-disaster aid and rejected Democratic proposals to bolster farm relief and unemployment benefits.
On the air-quality rules, several Northeastern Republicans abandoned Bush's position, reflecting their belief that the region bears the brunt of wind-borne pollution generated in the South and the West.
Those who crossed party lines included two -- New Hampshire Sens. Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu -- who rarely do so. Other GOP backers of the amendment were Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona -- all considered centrists or mavericks.
To offset the defections, GOP leaders won over five Southern Democrats sympathetic to industry concerns: Sens. John B. Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lambert Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Zell Miller of Georgia.
Breaux said through a spokeswoman that he believed the administration rules were "well-conceived," the culmination of studies begun during the Clinton administration.
Industrial and environmental lobbyists alike agreed that business interests in Louisiana and Arkansas, such as oil refineries and paper mills, influenced the votes of the senators from those states. Miller is a frequent ally of the Bush administration.
Joe Martyak, an EPA spokesman, said the agency was pleased with the vote's outcome and would move ahead with changes to the "new source review" program.
Under the Clean Air Act, most major new industrial plants are required to have up-to-date pollution controls. Plants built before 1977 are required, in general, to add such controls when they are upgraded in ways that make them significant "new sources" of additional pollutants.
But industry and environmentalists have long disputed what level of construction should trigger those antipollution rules. In its new rules, the administration gave companies some -- but not all -- of the changes they had sought to relax Clean Air Act requirements.
California is largely unaffected because its air-quality laws are stricter than the federal government's.
Interest groups battled over the Edwards amendment until the roll call, in the Senate's first major environmental fight of the year.
"This was an extremely important vote for our members," said Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality for the National Assn. of Manufacturers, a group that supports the administration's rules.
Nat Mund, a Sierra Club lobbyist, lamented that the Senate "missed a chance" to halt a major loosening of clean-air rules. But environmentalists took heart from the close vote, saying the Senate could be expected to challenge Bush in future environmental policy fights.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren contributed to this report.