WASHINGTON – As President Donald Trump introduces a series of budget cuts and regulatory rollbacks that would cripple the Environmental Protection Agency, he faces one unpredictable obstacle: resistance from fellow Republicans.
A small but vocal number of GOP lawmakers have rallied in support of popular programs in their districts, including clean water programs in the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, that are among the biggest losers in the budget Trump proposed to Congress last month.
"I'm not one who says, 'Get rid of the EPA, abolish the EPA,' " said Scott Taylor, a Virginia House freshman who has called for level funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program — a stance that could carry extra weight because he serves on the Appropriations Committee. "I believe you have to have someone who is administering reasonable, responsible regulations to protect our environment."
Such statements stand in stark contrast to Trump's campaign promise to "get rid of" the EPA by slashing staff, closing regional offices and rolling back environmental regulations — an idea that many Republicans have peddled for years.
They offer one example of a slew of disagreements within the GOP over the core principles represented by the Trump spending plans for fiscal years 2017 and 2018, which propose deep cuts to popular domestic programs in order to pay for increases in the defense budget. At the EPA, roughly 3,200 positions would be eliminated — about a fifth of the agency's workforce — along with 50 programs. Congressional appropriators from both parties have panned Trump's request, pointing out that they — not the president — are the ones who determine the final budget. But environmental advocates are nonetheless concerned that with so many cuts proposed, some will almost certainly stick.
"I can't imagine that Congress is going to go along with these cuts," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. He pointed out that the conservative argument that environmental regulations should be left to the states is also belied by a March request from the administration that called for a 30 percent cut to state grants. "My fear is that the administration has just thrown slop at the wall and some of it will remain," Becker said.
Moderate GOP members or those with environmental problems in their home districts have so far been the most vocal opponents of Trump's proposed EPA cuts. But Adrian Gray, a right-leaning political consultant who worked for the George W. Bush administration and the Republican National Committee, said many more could have reason to be concerned.
His research shows that, across the country, GOP voters care about environmental issues. That's one reason major environmental actions such as the creation of the EPA and the Clean Air Act of 1970 happened under Richard Nixon, a Republican president, he said.
Many Republicans are also strongly opposed to cuts to environmental programs — including in regions considered "Trump country," Gray said.
"If they're distributed across enough districts to make it matter, that's the big question," he said. "That's the math we're trying to work on now."
A survey Gray conducted in late March in regions that Trump carried last fall showed that 70 percent of voters said climate change is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem.
Of the 58 percent of voters who had heard of Trump's efforts to reduce environmental regulations, 51 percent said it had lowered their opinion of the administration. And while 26 percent said they wanted a rollback on protections that have "become a burden on manufacturing jobs," 66 percent said they wanted "environmental protections" to remain in place.
Typically, voters don't base their decisions at the ballot box on environmental issues, Gray said. But if a piece of legislation puts the topic in the national spotlight or if there is an environmental catastrophe — such as an oil spill or a destructive storm — that could change quickly, he said.
"Then it's a whole new ballgame for Republicans, and they're probably looking at some real costs, not just to a couple of members who have a thorn in their side — some real political costs," Gray said.
For now, members in coastal regions, areas where the economy is tied to the outdoors, or regions with a large block of evangelical voters who believe it's "their duty to protect God's earth," are bound to suffer the most if voters feel their party has abandoned the environment, Gray said.
Ready to pounce
But environmental advocates, sensing a potential line of attack, are ready to pounce on anyone who stays silent on the cuts.
"Our allies, who have stood up against efforts to roll back the EPA, are invigorated for this fight because they recognize that it's a huge overreach to go after the people who are keeping our air clean and our water safe," said Jeremy Symons, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Anyone who supports this budget will be vulnerable to attacks that this budget puts polluters ahead of children's health."