By a 56-41 vote, senators defeated a resolution by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said the step was needed to rein in what he called the Obama administration's overzealous job-killing approach to environmental protection.
"We are simply asking that the clean air regulations already on the books stay in place and we do not make the regulations so onerous that they put utility plants out of business and we have an inability to supply electricity in this country," Paul said. "To have clean air and clean jobs you must have a balance."
Unlike normal legislation, which needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, his resolution needed a simple majority to pass.
But six Republicans voted against it, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. He said that while the Environmental Protection Agency was a fruitful hunting ground for regulatory excess, the cross-state air pollution rule would help prevent the Great Smoky Mountains from becoming the Great Smoggy Mountains.
"This is no solution to a serious problem. It has no chance of succeeding," Alexander said. "The only reason for it is a political message. And what kind of message is it? That we favor dirty air blowing from Kentucky into Tennessee. That we favor not doing our job, turning it back to bureaucrats, lawyers, uncertainty, delay?"
He was joined by GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Northeastern states bear the brunt of border-crossing pollution, which blows in from power plants in Midwestern states to create smog, acid rain and soot.
The regulation, issued in July, will require power plants in 27 states to reduce smokestack pollution crossing state lines. Downwind states alone cannot clean up the pollution, which leads to billions of dollars spent fighting respiratory illnesses, asthma attacks and other health problems.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said that the regulation would be the only chance for his state to get healthier.
"My state, my neighboring state, should not have to suffer because other states are not required to clean up their act at our expense," Carper said.
Two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, sided with the GOP.
Manchin, along with Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, has introduced legislation to delay the cross-state pollution rule by three years. Alexander has a bill to postpone the rule for at least a year.
While the Senate thus far has been successful in blocking attempts to scrap EPA rules, a series of votes in April that focused on the agency's regulation of global warming gases shows there may be a desire to delay some regulations.
The administration, under pressure from Republicans and industry groups, already scrapped a new standard for smog-forming ozone. A new one won't be proposed until 2013.
Paul's resolution would have voided the Obama administration's rewrite of the cross-border pollution rule and left in place a regulation from the Bush administration that a federal court in 2008 said had illegal provisions. The Obama version will add $800 million a year to the $1.6 billion annually companies were already expected to spend to comply with the rule.
Even if the measure had passed, the White House had threatened to veto it, saying "it would cause substantial harm to public health and undermine our nation's longstanding commitment to clean up pollution from power plants."