By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate could soon approve a major overhaul of the federal bureaucracy and make lasting changes to regulation of the environment, education, banks and other areas.
On Wednesday a Senate committee sent a bill on to the full chamber that, supporters say, will make regulators more accountable to lawmakers and provide greater understanding of how rules affect the economy.
The next step, debating the bill on the Senate floor, has not been scheduled. The House of Representatives approved companion legislation in January.
Critics say the bill, the Regulatory Accountability Act, creates so many new requirements that it would paralyze regulators working to establish even the most basic rules and standards. They also say it makes cutting industry and banks' costs a higher priority than protecting public health and safety.
For decades the political parties have been starkly divided over regulation and Republicans are currently winning their battle to lessen the red tape they say ties up business and hurts the economy. Republicans also say former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, pushed regulators to go beyond their duties of executing laws passed by Congress to create policy on their own.
Democrats say regulation, which touches nearly every part of American life, shields average people from health, financial and other threats and is needed to accomplish the goals set in laws.
The Senate bill would require more cost-benefit and other analyses, give courts and the White House greater checks on rulemaking, classify regulations by potential economic impact, and lengthen rulemaking processes.
One progressive group, Public Citizen, estimates it would add 53 steps to major rulemaking, possibly doubling the average amount of time it takes to finalize a regulation - currently four years.
The bill has pitted the powerful business group, the Chamber of Commerce, against progressive ones such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp broke ranks with her fellow Democrats to write the accountability act, indicating some members of the party may support the bill when the closely-divided Senate votes.
Also, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, is working on alternative legislation that her party could find more palatable and could keep some of the bill's measures.
Since Republicans swept Congress and the White House in November's elections they have moved swiftly against regulation.
Using the Congressional Review Act, lawmakers killed 14 Obama-era regulations in the span of three months.
Trump's efforts have yielded mixed results. His order to cut two existing regulations for every new one has stalled during a legal challenge. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency was jammed with thousands of pleas to maintain regulations when it asked for public comment on Trump's order to look into repealing or rewriting current rules. The comment period closed Monday.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Nick Zieminski)