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With President Obama set to address a Congress tonight that has been deeply divided along party lines on air quality issues, two of the Senate's past leaders on bipartisan air quality legislation said yesterday that working across the aisle is still the way to go.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have collaborated in four previous sessions of Congress on a "three-pollutant" bill that would have created a nationwide trading program for sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) and set limits on mercury from the power sector. Carper has also proposed adding carbon dioxide to the list of regulated emissions.

The two yesterday participated in a panel hosted by the World Resources Institute, an international environmental think tank. Tonight they will join their colleagues in the audience of the president's annual State of the Union address.

Alexander said that this Congress he plans to push bipartisan legislation to delay implementation of Clean Air Act rules. If Congress passes such a bill, it could reclaim its role as policymaker rather than continuing to cede it to U.S. EPA, he said.

"I think Congress should go ahead and be more involved so that EPA can be less involved," he said.

"A good Republican position is: Why should we turn over too much to bureaucrats?" he added.

Alexander said that a bill introduced last summer by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to delay the crafting and implementation of a toxic emissions rule for industrial boilers would be a good start. The bills would also give EPA enough time to rejigger the rule, he said, "because EPA doesn't have the authority to do what it needs to do."

And while he supports another EPA rule that limits smog- and soot-forming emissions that cross state lines, Alexander said he could support a delay of one or more years for that rule, as well.

"If we had more generous time to get where we're going, we'd already be there, and we wouldn't have been in court for all this amount of time," he said.

Environmentalists are unlikely to applaud Alexander's comments. The so-called "EPA Regulatory Relief Act" (S. 1392) would not only stall the boiler rule, they say, but limit it and provide exemptions for some emissions sources. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, meanwhile, has already been stalled by the courts.

But Alexander said that delaying the rules would actually allow them to take effect more quickly because industry would be less likely to challenge them in court. He assigned both environmentalists and industry the blame for sabotaging bipartisan compromise in the past in order to push for each group's ideal.

"You're saying in practicality our best chance to get a strong rule is to wait for a good EPA administrator, maybe appointed by Democrats, who would go ahead and do something that needed to be done a long time ago," Alexander told the mostly environmentalist-leaning audience and panel.

"On the other hand, there are some who say, 'We're going to hold things up and delay things in the courts,'" he said, referring to industry and their representatives who have sued to stay new EPA rules.

"So it's in nobody's interest really to get a law," Alexander concluded.

But Carper said the failure of the "three-P" and "four-P" bills last Congress had more to do with confidence on the part of utilities that they could avoid tough new rules altogether if Republicans gained control of Congress, as they did after the 2010 election. Republican majorities would introduce anti-regulatory legislation -- as GOP members have done in both the House and the Senate.

Carper expressed little patience for industry's new-found enthusiasm for legislation, however.

"There's a word in the dictionary called disingenuous. I think it might pertain to what we see here," he said.

Carper said he would continue to talk to colleagues like Alexander but was not sold on the need to delay any rules. "Eventually we need to provide some predictability and reliability," he said.

Carper's views are in line with most of his Senate Democratic colleagues, which is why the numerous anti-regulatory bills the Republican-controlled House passed last year have failed to gain any footing in the upper chamber. Their prospects are similarly dim for the year ahead.

Bill Reilly, who headed EPA under George H.W. Bush, said the partisan deadlock in Congress had rendered it largely irrelevant.

"Although Congress, and particularly the House, is very noisy about things environmental, Congress doesn't really matter to most of these debates anymore," he said. "It's all EPA and the courts."

This fact should motivate leaders in Congress to find middle ground, he said, but that has not happened yet. While this "extreme partisan divide" persists, members who genuinely want to make needed changes to the Clean Air Act are wary of lending their support to an effort that could become a battleground.

"Nobody, I think, who wants to see constructive changes in the revisiting of some of these statutes would dare touch that or propose it in the current climate," Reilly said.

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