POLITICS:

Some House GOP freshmen, faced with a choice, prefer spending cuts over suspending EPA climate rules

Freshman Republican representatives may speak bitterly of U.S. EPA -- one claims it's a "Gestapo" agency -- but some appear unwilling to risk the wider spending cuts they're pursuing for the sake of freezing climate regulations.

Several members of the unpredictable class of 87 GOP newcomers to the House signaled that they could support a government spending plan for the remaining fiscal year that doesn't strip funding for EPA's greenhouse gas rules. Their bigger concern, they said, is fulfilling campaign promises to slash overall spending.

"No, no, my vote wouldn't depend on it being in there," Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) said of the EPA provision. "My vote's going to be dependent on how we're spending money."

It's an unsavory choice for conservatives, many of whom lampooned climate policies during the campaigns that swept them to power last year. EPA is a flavorful symbol of their warnings of runaway government. That's something that hasn't faded back home.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who claimed the seat held by Republican Bob Inglis in part by attacking his belief in climate change, said he toured a chemical plant in his district last week. A major complaint by its operators was overregulation: One of the plant's small buildings, no larger than a bedroom, is inspected by four federal agencies, Gowdy said yesterday.

"Would it be near the top of my list?" he said of snipping EPA's ability to impose greenhouse gas rules. "Yes."

But there's competition on top of that pile, and nothing ranks higher than fulfilling his promise to reduce spending. He didn't campaign on achieving one provision. His role here is bigger than that, he and other lawmakers said. It's about bucking the budget. It's about the taxpayer.

"I ran on a [campaign about] shrinking the size and scope of government and cutting spending," Gowdy said. "I'm more focused on doing what we said we're going to do, as opposed to the individual programs."

Senate landscape shifting on EPA

He may be faced with that choice soon. Over the next two weeks, the Senate is expected to consider a spending package that funds the government from March 19 through September. It's unlikely that chamber will match the sprawling cuts amounting to more than $60 billion passed by the House on Feb. 19. It's even less likely that fiery policy provisions, like defunding EPA's climate rules, will be adopted by the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) described those provisions yesterday as "terribly mischievous and wrongheaded."

One of the Senate's leading advocates for delaying EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, meanwhile, is shrinking from the House attempt to do just that. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) says his legislation providing a two-year delay is contingent on ramping up carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which he believes is unlikely under a Republican Congress.

"If they're not serious about doing CCS, then the language on the two-year extension means less, because my purpose of having that extension is not to trash EPA, but it's to give us a chance to roll out that technology around the country," Rockefeller said yesterday. "EPA had more meaning to it when we had a chance to pass CCS."

But other senators are considering whether a seven-month suspension of EPA's greenhouse gas rules could help their constituents. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he supports that move. And Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) indicated that he needs assurances his state's industrial sector won't face higher operating costs than its foreign competitors.

"I don't know yet what that delay could mean in terms of what the White House is doing on climate change, certainly, and on whether we can get any kind of border adjustment," Brown said Monday of suspending EPA's authority. "Because that's where I want to end up with it."

Negotiations between the chambers will occur as the clock ticks toward an ominous deadline. Both parties are maneuvering to avoid blame for causing a potential government shutdown if an agreement is not reached by March 18.

The distaste for locking up agencies was apparent yesterday when the House passed a two-week spending extension without controversial language. It provides funding between March 4 and March 18. Reid, meanwhile, showed his own willingness to cooperate yesterday by dropping his preferred month-long extension and promising instead to pass the shorter House version today. The measure cuts spending by $4 billion over two weeks.

EPA and its 'Gestapo tactics'

But it's unclear if the two-week delay will offer enough time for the two chambers to align their divergent views. Reid said yesterday that President Obama will seek to generate public support for many of the programs on the Republican cutting block. Other reductions proposed by the GOP would erode Obama's priorities around clean energy, infrastructure and education.

Those combined cuts mean more to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who claimed during his successful campaign against Democrat Russ Feingold that sunspots are a bigger contributor to climate change than humans, than defunding EPA regulations. The absence of that provision wouldn't prompt him to vote against a continuing resolution, he said.

"These aren't single issue things," Johnson said. "We've got to be committed to cutting spending."

Two weeks ago, House leaders allowed language to be included in the fiscal year spending package that disrupts EPA greenhouse gas rules until October. Now they might have to decide whether they could be blamed for shutting down the government if they demand that it's included in the final measure.

"It certainly should be on the table," said freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). "It should be part of the conversation."

Other House freshmen, too, might find it difficult to withhold their jabs at EPA.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who defeated Democrat Zack Space in part by criticizing his vote on cap and trade, was asked if he could vote for a continuing resolution that doesn't block EPA's climate regulations.

"I don't know yet," Gibbs answered. "We're going to see."

Freshman Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) was angered by a story he heard in his district last week. The constituent, who owns five rental properties, was fined $10,000 by EPA for each property for failing to have his tenants sign lead-based paint disclosure forms.

Scott might be thinking about the agency's threat to triple those fines if he's faced with a vote on rolling back EPA's climate regulations.

"They told him essentially that if he wanted to argue with them that they'd fine him $30,000 per house," Scott said yesterday. "Those are Gestapo tactics."

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