WASHINGTON (AP) -- A bipartisan bill that would update regulation of harmful chemicals for the first time in nearly 40 years is drawing opposition from some Democrats and environmental groups, who charged on Wednesday that the measure is a step backward in protecting health and the environment.
The bill is proposed by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., who call it a commonsense update to a 1976 law widely seen as ineffective.
The bill would set safety standards for tens of thousands of chemicals that are now unregulated and offer protections for those vulnerable to their effects such as pregnant women, children and workers. It also would set deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to act, while blocking states' action in cases where EPA is addressing the same issues.
Regulation of chemicals took on new urgency after a crippling spill in West Virginia last year contaminated drinking water for 300,000 people. The chemical, crude MCHM, is one of thousands unregulated under current law.
The bill, a product of two years' negotiations, is named after the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat who pushed for chemical reform before his death in 2013.
Lautenberg's widow, Bonnie, testified Wednesday that while the bill is not perfect, it is an improvement over current law and would protect families from toxic chemicals such as asbestos, formaldehyde and hundreds of others.
'Please work out your differences for every family,' she implored her husband's former colleagues. 'Far too many chemicals are on the market without any sort of testing.'
The hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee featured a role reversal from usual positions taken by the two parties. Republicans, who often push for the rights of states to set their own guidelines, backed a bill that would create a national standard for chemicals while granting enforcement power to an agency Republicans often criticize - the EPA.
Democrats turned that argument against the bill's supporters, claiming the measure would pre-empt aggressive regulation by states such as California, Vermont and Massachusetts. Industry groups have said they welcome regulation of chemicals but said they should not have to contend with a potential for 50 different standards across the country.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who holds what had been Lautenberg's seat in the Senate, said the pre-emption of state enforcement was 'a serious problem' in the Udall-Vitter bill.
'Why should we be afraid of states' rights to take actions, especially when the EPA's budget is continually hacked away' by Republicans who control Congress, Booker asked.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he found it ironic that Republicans would push to give power to the EPA - 'the same EPA that they want to cut the budget of. Frankly, I don't think that passes the laugh test if I may say so.'
Vitter said the bill would protect public health and the environment while ensuring that 'American industry has the ability to continue to lead and innovate.' The alternative is to allow both parties to push 'failed ideas that only guarantee the survival of an antiquated law,' he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., charged that the bill was generated by the chemical industry itself, noting that computer coding on a draft bill identified the American Chemistry Council, the chief lobbying group for the chemical industry.
'Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I do not believe that a regulated industry should be so intimately involved in writing a bill that regulates them,' Boxer said. 'The voices of public health and safety organizations that speak for our citizens must be heard.'
Udall's staff disputed Boxer's claim, saying the chemical group was one of many that suggested edits to the bill, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups.
The chemical group 'had no more input than environmental groups, and as a result of the input from many stakeholders, the bill has moved further toward what environmental groups and others said they wanted to see,' said Jennifer Talhelm, a Udall spokeswoman.
Despite the bickering, there's widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that the current law needs an overhaul. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, known as TSCA, is widely seen as ineffective in protecting Americans from harmful chemicals.
The Udall-Vitter bill mandates safety reviews for all chemicals in use and for new chemicals before they can enter the market. It also replaces EPA's cost-benefit safety standard with a health-based safety standard.
Richard Denison, a scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Congress has the best chance in a generation to bring the toxic substances law into the 21st century.
'The failures of TSCA represent a serious and growing public health calamity,' Denison told the committee. 'American families can't afford' to squander the opportunity to reform it.
The Udall-Vitter bill has 20 co-sponsors, including 10 Democrats. A competing bill sponsored by Boxer and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, has no Republican co-sponsors.