House Republicans and 13 Democrats passed a measure last night eliminating the salaries of President Obama's international climate change envoy and other top officials, a defiant GOP challenge that will further complicate tough budget negotiations looming with Senate Democrats.
The amendment to "sack the czars" ignited protests from Democrats who called it a political attack masquerading as a principled spending cut. It is among hundreds of amendments in the Republican budget package being assembled to fund the government for the next seven months while slashing $60 billion.
One of amendment's top targets is U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, Obama's chief treaty negotiator at the U.N. global warming talks. It also defunds Obama's climate adviser, a post formerly held by Carol Browner, and several other "czar" positions that Republicans decry as unaccountable to Congress.
"There's actually a czar still trying to impose a cap-and-trade regime," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the amendment's author, claimed on the hectic House floor yesterday. "You've got a global warming czar that's running around spending taxpayer money promoting a policy that would destroy jobs."
House Republicans also debated a controversial amendment last night designed to strip EPA's ability to make or enforce rules regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) offered the measure at 12:42 a.m. It would defund the EPA program for seven months. The amendment will be voted on today.
"This amendment will put an end to any back-door attempt to go around Congress and circumvent the will of the people," Poe says in a statement on his website.
These amendments came on the third day of debate around the spending bill. The House began hacking away at the more controversial of the 500-plus amendments yesterday, triggering ad hoc debates on things like Internet regulations, child sex crimes and Asian carp. Tired House aides relived scenes of colleagues dozing with open mouths in desk chairs and meals of early morning fried chicken, the effects of working past midnight for three days.
Searching for 'bad science'
One lawmaker took a break from the testy House chamber to alert White House climate officials that they could be next to fall under the funding ax. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.), chairman of the Science Committee, held a panel yesterday on Obama's 2012 budget request.
"From 2006 to now, we spent $36 billion on climate change -- and what do we have to show for it? A lot of programs and pamphlets," he said. "We need to change that."
The lawmaker, who says he's not a climate skeptic, reiterated his plan to hold hearings that examine the basis of climate science (ClimateWire, Jan. 6).
"The administration has told us time and again of the calamities of climate change," Hall said, addressing his lone witness, White House science adviser John Holdren. "We've been told that it was based on bad science, we don't know who told us that, but we're going to have them before us and ask them who told them that, and then try to have them before us."
About a mile away, Energy Secretary Steven Chu found himself in a very different world. He was giving a talk to a group of utility regulators, who are more concerned with the practicalities of power supply than climate science.
Chu's presentation stuck to the smart meters, power lines, batteries and wind turbines that DOE's been working on since the Recovery Act. Then, inevitably, a regulator asked him how Congress' magnified focus on the deficit will affect DOE's budget, and all the projects he'd been talking about.
Chu said the president's budget proposed on Monday objected to "across the board" cuts.
"The country didn't trust Congress and the president and his administration to do something like that," he said. The country needs help climbing out of the recession, so Obama will invest in energy and education.
House bill a 'non-starter'
Still, Chu seemed to admit that some lawmakers won't see it that way.
"Depending on what Congress does, we will work with them. ... If they happen not to see the wisdom in the proposed budget, then ..." he trailed off with a laugh. "But there's a lot of wisdom at least in the overall in terms of how to invest in America, to actually generate wealth tomorrow and next year and then on in the future."
House Republicans, meanwhile, are approaching a collision with the Senate, where the spending package is sure to face withering attacks from the Democratic majority. Yet, at some point, the two sides must reach a compromise, or the government could shut down.
"For me, the House bill is a non-starter," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said yesterday. "There's so much in the House bill I could never support."
Others are expressing resentment at the House GOP for claiming to be the sole caretaker of the deficit. The current government funding package, a stopgap mechanism in place because Congress never passed a budget for this fiscal year, represents a $41 billion reduction from Obama's spending plan for 2011, claims Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
"I'm for $41 billion in cuts," she said. The House package calls for a $100 billion cut compared to Obama's spending plan for 2011, or $60 billion in real cuts through September.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) expects Congress to pass a short-term spending plan -- one that lasts weeks, not months -- to avoid a government shutdown when current funding expires on March 4.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added, "We can't allow the government to shut down."
Back in the House, Republicans are racing ahead with controversial provisions that promise to complicate the negotiations that would avoid that. The bill includes a section that strips funding from U.S. EPA for developing and enforcing rules to limit greenhouse gases from large polluters. Democrats largely surrendered attempts to override that provision with an amendment, believing they would lose.
"I'm not sure we can risk taking any major climate change bill to the floor in this environment," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), an Appropriations subcommittee chairman.
Freshman Republican: Obama can hire who he likes
Perhaps the most defiant amendment to pass yesterday fired Obama's czars.
"Let's be honest. This is not about czars. This is about the person who lives in the White House," Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said, likening it to other amendments seeking to rescind Obama's use of a teleprompter and deny funding for White House maintenance. "You cannot accept the fact that he is the president."
The measure passed 249-179, with 13 Democrats supporting it. They include Reps. Dan Boren (Okla.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Jerry Costello (Ill.), Henry Cuellar (Tex.), Peter DeFazio (Ore.), Gene Green (TX), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Jim Matheson (UT), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Ed Pastor (Ariz.), Heath Shuler (N.C.), Nick Rahall II (W.Va.) and Mike Ross (Ark.).
One Republican opposed the measure. Freshman Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said in a statement afterward that he wants to review current regulations, including those that reduce greenhouse gases, and freeze new ones from being implemented for two years. But he believes Obama can hire whoever he likes.
As the State Department's top climate change envoy, Stern has led the U.S. negotiating team at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Earlier this week Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said cutting the position would be a "huge mistake," and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in support of the position.
Indeed, some experts said even if the Scalise provision somehow became law, the United States would continue to have a top negotiator -- but perhaps with a different title.
"I can't imagine the Senate is going to look kindly on the House mucking around in foreign policy," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's like they're just going after anything with the word 'climate' in it."