Senate Democrats are seeking to protect energy and climate programs targeted by the House's aggressive budget cuts, a move that accelerates the chambers toward a clash over President Obama's key priorities and a possible government shutdown.
Yet even as the Senate established a defensive perimeter, its spending plan released Friday afternoon made it clear that funding cuts are coming to renewable energy programs, climate research and U.S. EPA. The question is, by how much?
Those answers will emerge from hard-nosed negotiations, which could begin in earnest this week now that both chambers have laid down a spending marker, according to analysts. The White House is leading those talks with House and Senate leaders as the stopgap spending measure passed last week inches toward its expiration next Friday.
The Senate's continuing resolution (CR) would strike $51 billion through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, as compared to Obama's 2011 budget request, Democrats say. That figure is much smaller than the House's plan to cut $100 billion.
"They're a long way off from finding agreement," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit group the Concord Coalition. "It's going to be much more difficult to avoid a shutdown by March 18."
The Senate bill rejects some of the House bill's 67 amendments, or "riders," as "purely political, meant to score points or placate supporters," the Senate Appropriations Committee said in a release.
It erases the House provision that would block EPA from using its budget to regulate greenhouse gases. It restores U.S. contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And it strikes the language forbidding Obama from hiring "czars" for climate change or green jobs or negotiators for global climate talks, such as Special Envoy Todd Stern.
"Such language has no place in a bill that is necessary to keep the government operating," the Senate committee said.
Compromise appears unlikely
The two measures are vastly different, leading experts to believe that a compromise is unlikely before the current spending bill expires March 18.
"If they did it in a month, it would be remarkable," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director for the House Appropriations Committee. "I think there are going to be a lot of short-term extensions under [House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio)] plan."
But that can't last forever, Lilly said, adding that sometime this spring a government shutdown is likely.
Senate Democrats also undid Republican cuts to international climate efforts. For example, the House bill zeroed the Strategic Climate and Clean Technology Funds, two World Bank-led programs, and it reduced the U.S. contribution to the Global Environment Facility to $32 million.
The Senate provides $125 million for the GEF, $85 million for the Strategic Climate Fund and $250 million for the Clean Technology Fund.
For the Department of Energy, Senate proposals generally sat a tick above House figures. The Senate bill, for example, sets aside $1.9 billion for the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the main government office in these topics; the House had set this level at $1.47 billion.
The Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability office, the main government agency doing research and development on the electric grid, got $156 million in the Senate, compared to $139 million in the House. The overall funding levels for nuclear energy and fossil energy research and development are identical in the House and Senate.
In his State of the Union address, Obama said he wanted to double the budgets of basic research agencies, but this is an area of considerable difference between Republicans and Democrats. The Senate bill would fund DOE's Office of Science at $4.7 billion, but the House bill sits at $4 billion.
The Senate also funds the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, at $200 million, a significant downgrade from the $300 million figure Obama requested last year. But it's still far above the House proposal, which sets ARPA-E funding at $50 million.
The Senate's DOE proposals, in fact, tended to sit below the president's requested budget from last year. Obama had asked for $2.35 billion for EERE and $5.1 billion for the Office of Science, for example.
Climate science cuts reversed
The two chambers were about $300 million apart on two critical items at EPA: The House funded EPA's environmental programs and management at $2.57 billion and the Science and Technology division at $790 million; the Senate put these numbers at $2.8 billion and $826 million, respectively.
The chambers arrived at virtually identical numbers for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: $4.7 billion to $4.8 billion. On this issue, Congress actually sits apart from the White House, which has proposed cutting the program to $2.6 billion for next year.
The Senate bill also seeks to reverse cuts the House bill would make to two key climate science and monitoring agencies.
The upper house's proposal would give roughly $4.5 billion to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), compared to about $4.3 billion in the House-approved CR.
Both proposals are well below the $5.5 billion that Obama is seeking for the agency in fiscal 2012, but the Senate plan is closer to the agency's enacted 2010 budget of $4.7 billion.
The Senate plan would allow $3.19 billion for NOAA's operations, research and facilities account, restoring $340 million of $454.3 million in cuts the House made, compared to the agency's 2010 enacted budget.
Those House cuts to NOAA's operations budget "would threaten critical weather forecasts and warnings," Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.
The House bill does include more money for NOAA's procurement, acquisition and construction account, the conduit for much of the agency's spending on climate and weather satellites. The House plan would set aside $1.46 billion versus $1.34 billion in the Senate bill and $1.36 billion enacted in fiscal 2010.
The chambers come closer on their overall budget proposals for NASA. The House bill sets aside $18.4 billion for the space agency, compared with $18.5 billion in the Senate billion. NASA received $18.7 billion in fiscal 2010.
But the Senate bill makes a point of shoring up the space agency's Science Mission Directorate, which includes NASA's climate research and monitoring activities.
The Senate plan seeks $4.819 billion for NASA science, bridging the gap between the $4.498 billion the agency received in fiscal 2010 and the $5.017 billion sought by the White House for fiscal 2012. (The House CR does not specify a funding level for NASA's science activities.)