The EPA's effort to tackle the latest and perhaps most challenging environmental problem -- global warming -- has made it a central target of the new Republican leadership's anti-regulatory agenda. Having failed last year to enact new legislation to curb global warming, the administration is left to use existing law -- the Clean Air Act -- to start reducing the pollution causing the planet's temperature to rise.
During a hearing on Wednesday, GOP members of a House subcommittee contended that such actions will only raise electricity prices and penalize industries that otherwise could be creating jobs.
"Congress intends to reassert itself in the statutory and regulatory process at EPA and specifically the Clean Air Act," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power. He is a sponsor of a draft bill that would block the EPA from using the law to control heat-trapping pollution.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the panel that the legislation "would eliminate portions of the landmark law that all American children and adults rely on to protect them from harmful air pollution."
During more than two hours of testimony, Jackson said the law and overwhelming scientific evidence on global warming compelled the EPA to act.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., the author of the draft bill, denied that it would limit the federal government's ability to monitor and reduce health-damaging pollution.
At the same time, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., proposed a sweeping $1.9 billion cut -- about 18 percent -- to the amount of money requested for EPA this year by President Barack Obama. Rogers' proposal would also shave millions from EPA programs that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, including one that boosts energy efficiency in household appliances and another that collects data on heat-trapping emissions.
The agency has been caught before in shifting political winds. In the past, however, Congress passed nearly unanimously the laws that cleaned up the air and water. Longtime observers say the atmosphere for the agency today has never been more toxic.
"It's really been quite extreme," William Ruckelshaus, EPA administrator under Nixon and again under President Ronald Reagan, said of the rhetoric aimed at the agency. "What are they supposed to do? Sit there and do nothing?"
The latest and perhaps most draconian attack came from Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate. Gingrich called for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with an organization more friendly to business.
During a campaign commercial last year, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia used a rifle to blast a hole through legislation limiting the gases blamed for global warming. He won a seat in the Senate.
Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist, says Gingrich and Manchin are outliers in a more reasoned debate over how big the global warming problem is and how to deal with it.
"I don't think the (political) base is ready to throw EPA out the window," McKenna said. "There are plenty of people across the country who want EPA ratcheted down and think it has gone too far, too fast."
Lawmakers of both parties have already introduced a dozen bills aimed at weakening, delaying or blocking pollution regulations. Business groups invited by congressional Republicans to describe their biggest regulatory burdens singled out EPA rules more than any other.
The main target is the agency's use of the Clean Air Act to control greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court said in 2007 the law could be used to fight global warming.
In 2009, the EPA under Obama put the law in motion by concluding that climate change caused by pollution from industries, automobiles and other sources burning fossil fuels threaten public health and welfare. Some Republicans --and some Democrats from industrial states --aren't convinced that's the case.
Others, including Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., think the law is ill-suited to deal with the problem. Dingell led negotiations over the last major overhaul of the Clean Air Act, in 1990. On Wednesday, he told Jackson the agency's use of the law for global warming has put it in the "intolerable hole in which I find you."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee and author of the climate legislation that passed the House in 2009, said that while Republicans could rewrite the nation's laws, they couldn't change scientific evidence showing global warming is a threat.
"The underlying premise of this bill is that climate change is a hoax," Waxman said. "The science hasn't changed in the last two years; in fact, it's only gotten stronger."
There's also growing resistance to a host of other regulations expected from the agency. Some were initiated by Obama, but others are the result of courts throwing regulations from the George W. Bush administration. Still others stem from reviews required by law to update standards to reflect the latest science. They cover everything from ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, to coal ash disposal, to rules aimed at reducing pollution blowing into downwind states and from industrial boilers.
The EPA's defenders say the agency is simply following statutes aimed at protecting people's health -- something they say has strong support and is necessary for a healthy economy.