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Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- U.S. Sen. David Vitter

A major legislative rewrite of federal toxic chemical regulations that’s actively advocated by U.S. Sen. David Vitter won Senate committee approval Tuesday on a strong bipartisan vote.

The 15-5 vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee clears the update of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act for action by the full Senate. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she would propose numerous amendments on the Senate floor to the bill, which she voted against in committee.

The legislation will “empower the EPA, protect public health and safety, and also keep America as an innovation leader in ways that enhance and improve all of our lives,” Vitter, R-La., said in the committee hearing.

Backers of the update effort say the proposal represents a significant and long-overdue overhaul of the 1976 law. Chemical industry groups have supported the legislation. Numerous environmental groups have opposed it, although the Environmental Defense Fund has endorsed it.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, was intended to provide for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to protect Americans from exposure to toxic or harmful substances in clothing, furniture, cleaning products and elsewhere in the environment. But chemical manufacturers and environmentalists agree the law is outdated and largely ineffective.

It largely exempted chemicals already in the marketplace from regulation, and a court decision that struck down a ban on asbestos weakened the law. Of the thousands of chemicals in commercial use today, nine are regulated under TSCA.

Several states have stepped into the breach to regulate chemicals, and the status of future state enforcement efforts is a key point of contention in the TSCA debate. In Louisiana, home to the second-largest chemical manufacturing industry in the nation (after Texas), state laws regulate the presence of mercury and lead in consumer products.

The legislation would subject many more chemicals to regulation, set minimum requirements and timelines for EPA testing, establish a fee system to finance the program and address major weaknesses in TSCA revealed by the court decision in the asbestos case.

Vitter, a committee member and the lead co-sponsor of the bill, has worked for months on the measure with its sponsor, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is not on the committee. The bill picked up additional Democratic support on the committee via a compromise announced Monday.

The compromise addressed a key point of contention in the debate on the bill: federal pre-emption of state efforts to regulate the chemicals. The compromise gives greater protection to state actions, but in Boxer’s view doesn’t go far enough.

“This is a states’ rights matter,” she said in the hearing. “I think that when the states want to protect their folks, they should be able to do so.”

But she said the compromise was a significant improvement over the earlier version of the legislation.

Boxer was one of five Democrats to vote no. The committee’s 11 Republicans were joined by four Democrats in voting yes.

“Major environmental laws don’t get passed or updated without bipartisan support,” Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., said at the outset of the hearing.

With their majority on the committee, Republicans could have approved the bill with no Democratic support. But in the full Senate, the Republicans’ 54-46 majority is six short of the number necessary to avoid a bill-killing filibuster, so the backing of at least six Democrats is needed for Senate approval.

The bill’s 21 co-sponsors include Bill Cassidy, R-La., and eight Democrats in addition to Udall — but the greater the bipartisan support in committee, the better the chances for full Senate passage. To become law, the proposal ultimately will need approval in the House, where Republicans hold the majority, and the signature of Democratic President Barack Obama.

In the 2013-14 Congress, Vitter collaborated on a TSCA rewrite with the late Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., for whom the current bill is named. But in that Congress, the Senate was controlled by Democrats, and Boxer was chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Despite a lengthy list of bipartisan co-sponsors, that bill never made it out of Boxer’s committee.

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