House Republicans launched their defunding assault on Democratic climate, energy and science priorities around midnight with amendments to drain Department of Energy accounts supporting solar energy, efficient cars and research into breakthrough technologies.
Those are among 403 amendments filed by both parties as the House debate on fiscal year funding accelerates toward the Republican goal of slashing $60 billion through September.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) sought to zap $247 million in department funding for solar incentives, arguing that its intermittent nature caused by clouds requires backup sources of power to be constantly available.
"We have not yet been able to invent a more expensive way to generate electricity," McClintock said.
But he ran into opposition within his own party, when Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) described the amendment as plunging too deeply into the already plundered Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at DOE. He said, "there's little room left to cut," and the amendment failed.
Rep. Robert Latta (R-Ohio) tried to strip $70 million from the FreedomCAR initiative, a program launched by President George W. Bush in 2002 to increase fuel efficiency through partnerships between the government, universities and the private sector. It worked hand in hand with Bush’s efforts to use hydrogen as a transportation fuel.
The amendment will be voted on today, but Frelinghuysen indicated that it does not have the support of Republican leaders. "There's simply no more fat to trim," he said. "This amendment would go too far."
Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) proposed to cut funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency and use the money to reduce the deficit. She was countered by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who sought to add $20 million into the ARPA-E budget, by redirecting that cash from fossil fuel research. He said the program provides the nation's "seed corn" on innovation. Both measures will be voted upon today.
But it's becoming increasingly clear that congressional Republicans face challenges extending their revolt beyond the spotlight on their chamber. President Obama warned yesterday that the GOP is reshaping the federal government with a "machete," and called for "practical" spending cuts that don't threaten the recovering economy.
To emphasize that point, the White House declared that Obama will veto the continuing resolution if it attacks his priorities around clean energy, transportation infrastructure and education.
"I think it is important to make sure that we don't try to make a series of symbolic cuts this year that could endanger the recovery," Obama said at a press conference yesterday. "What I'm going to be looking for is some common sense that the recovery is still fragile. So I'm looking forward to having a conversation. But the key here is for people to be practical and not to score political points. That's true for all of us."
The House assembled a book of amendments yesterday, reflecting Republicans' commitment to let rank-and-file members shape legislation. They're scattered across every title of the bill, touching on defense, agriculture, transportation and other areas.
Hunting for 'boondoggles' and 'czars'
Some seek to end spending on controversial programs, like the tax credit providing ethanol producers 45 cents for every gallon of the fuel made, at a cost of about $5 billion. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is seeking to strip funding from federal employees working on the issue of blender pumps, which tailor the level of ethanol for different types of flex fuel vehicles.
"The whole ethanol program is a waste of money," Flake said yesterday. "It's a boondoggle, pure and simple. So whichever way we can go after it, we will."
Others appear driven less by fiscal restraint than by political ideology. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is offering an amendment to rescind the salary of Todd Stern, the president's special envoy for climate change. He also wants to eliminate the position once held by Carol Browner, Obama's top adviser on energy and climate, though the bill already proposes that cut.
"These czars, they literally are running a shadow government, and it's very hard to find out what they're doing," Scalise said yesterday, arguing that the officials hold the power of a Cabinet secretary without the scrutiny provided by Congress.
Freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) is also targeting Browner's position, "to make certain" that the White House is unable to pursue climate policies through an official who was not confirmed by the Senate.
"I don't think the administration's following the law by allowing her to promote those particular policies," he said of Browner.
Huelskamp is not concerned about spurring unrest in his district with the vast spending reductions in the seven-month budget bill. He's held 14 town hall meetings, and the message was clear: Cut, cut, cut, he said.
Senate conflict just ahead
The amendments come from both directions. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is trying to upend the continuing resolution's attempt to defund U.S. EPA's enforcement of the Clean Air Act. The bill would strip cash from the agency's effort to regulate greenhouse gases, but Polis says the legislation would also rollback rules on other air pollutants.
"In the current language of the CR, the EPA would be prevented from implementing the Clean Air Act as it had for decades," Polis said.
The House began debating the legislation, and all of its amendments, last night. Republicans will take one title of the bill at a time, beginning with defense and eventually rolling through energy issues in title four, EPA in title seven and transportation in title 12.
All the while, it will be heading toward a showdown with the Senate.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) made it clear yesterday that his continuing resolution would contrast sharply with the "severe" version in the House. He attacked the Republican bill as a political attempt to satisfy conservative voters that would put at least 150,000 Americans out of work.
"Many of the recommendations in this bill resulted from a 'meat cleaver' approach to budget cuts, when we should be using a scalpel," Inouye said in a statement, adding that lawmakers should be "responsibly identifying specific programs that are wasteful or unneeded."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday that he's "concerned about the numbers" in the House bill. He also dismissed Republican accusations that he and other Democrats have unfairly been blaming Republicans for draconian cuts that could lead to a government shutdown if a spending measure isn't passed by March 4, when the current stopgap budget expires.
"Of course a shutdown is possible," Reid said. "That's what the Republicans are threatening."
Obama warned yesterday that closing the government could destabilize the healing economy, pointing to possible interruptions in payments to Social Security and veterans' benefits recipients.
Some House freshmen, however, described the defunding effort as a historic rebooting of Washington ways. Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) acknowledged that the Senate could unravel the major cuts pursued by the House, but not before he kept his promise to the conservative voters that elected him.
"It's up to the Senate what they want to do and how they want to move forward," he said yesterday. "We're going to focus on what we can control, which is listening to our constituents and reflecting what they want."