WASHINGTON -- A senator who opposes federal regulation on philosophical grounds is single-handedly blocking legislation that would strengthen safety rules for oil and gas pipelines, a bill that even the pipeline industry and companies in his own state support.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul's opposition to the bill hasn't wavered even after a gas pipeline rupture last week shook people awake in three counties in his home state of Kentucky.
Paul, a tea party ally who shares with his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a desire to shrink the role of the federal government, won't discuss his role in stymieing the bill. But industry lobbyists, safety advocates and Senate aides said he is the only senator who is refusing to agree to procedures that would permit swift passage of the measure.
A deadly gas pipeline explosion near San Francisco last year – along with other recent gas explosions and oil pipeline spills – has created consensus in Congress, as well as in the industry, that there are gaps in federal safety regulations.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the bill in May without opposition. It would authorize more federal safety inspectors, and pipeline companies would have to confirm that their records on how much pressure their pipelines can tolerate are accurate.
Under the bill, federal regulators could order that automatic shutoff valves be installed on new pipelines so leaks can be halted sooner. And it directs regulators to determine whether mandatory inspections of aging pipelines in densely populated areas should be expanded to include lines in rural areas. It would be paid for by industry fees.
The bill is supported by the industry's major trade associations – the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, the American Gas Association and the Association of Oil Pipelines – as well as the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group.
The measure is "a balanced solution to the very important issue of improving the safety of pipelines," said Martin Edwards, the interstate gas association's top lobbyist.
The bill's main sponsors – Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the committee's chairman, and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. – have been trying to bring it to the Senate floor for passage by "unanimous consent," essentially a voice vote. That requires Democratic and Republican leaders to check with each of their party members for objections.
No Democrat objected to the pipeline bill, but initially two Republicans did. They were Paul and Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, industry, safety and congressional officials told The Associated Press. Coburn has since withdrawn his objection, but Paul has resisted persuasion to drop his, they said.
Officials familiar with Paul's objections said he has told lobbyists and company officials that he's not opposed to any specific part of the bill, just to the notion of additional federal regulation.
"The rationale behind the hold is that he came to Congress as a person that doesn't want to provide more regulatory authority to the regulators. He wants to look at those (regulations) and pull back where he can," said Kyle Rogers, a vice president at the American Gas Association.
Support for the measure from Kentucky companies hasn't budged Paul.
"We thought (the bill) provided a reasonable framework and good congressional guidance for the regulators to go ahead and proceed down a path that would enhance pipeline safety over time," said Jerry Morris, president and CEO of Southern Star Central Gas Pipeline Inc. of Owensboro, Ky., who spoke to Paul about the issue during a meeting in Owensboro in June.
Industry is eager for Congress to pass a bill this year partly because the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is already working on new safety rules. They'd rather Congress provide direction to regulators as to what those rules should look like than leave the matter entirely up to the Obama administration.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointed out that Democrats could still bring the bill to the floor for a vote if they have the 60 votes necessary to clear the procedural hurdles a single lawmaker can erect under Senate rules. McConnell hasn't objected to the use of expedited procedures to pass the bill.
But as a practical matter, important but lesser measures like pipeline safety regulations that can't be approved quickly wind up languishing indefinitely.
"If you start down that road you don't have time for anything else," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Paul's ability to hold up a bill despite its wide, bipartisan support "is an indication of how dysfunctional the Senate has become," Ornstein said.
An anti-tax activist and ophthalmologist, Paul was elected to the Senate, his first public office, last year.
Meanwhile, two House committees have unanimously approved separate pipeline safety bills that are similar to the Senate bill. Differences between those measures are expected to be worked out in the coming weeks, with a single bill brought to the House floor before the end of the year.
Given that the Senate and House bills were approved by committees without a single no vote, it's clear lawmakers believe "there is enough information and enough tragedies of late that something needs to change," said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group. "In the face of a bunch of significant incidents in the last 15 months, this bill addresses some of the root causes of those accidents."