Even as Congress moves toward expected approval this week of a new stopgap government funding bill, the political stars have yet to align for a long-term deal on the fiscal future of federal energy and environmental programs.
The three-week continuing resolution (CR) unveiled by House Republicans on Friday would slice $6 billion in federal spending, largely by pursuing Democratic-backed program cuts and eliminating earmarks. But even Senate Democrats' acceptance of a second stopgap CR in two weeks, which Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) billed yesterday as "a signal of good faith," appears unlikely to be a game-changer given how strongly both parties are dug in to their respective positions.
"Let's resolve the budget for the rest of the year," Durbin told CNN yesterday, invoking national alarm over high gas prices and their impact on the stalled economy as an impetus to "move on and move forward" past the impasse over the fiscal year that ends in October.
The dual failure last week of two competing long-term CRs in the Senate -- the sweeping package of cuts House Republicans passed on Feb. 19 and a Democratic plan that excised about $6 billion from the budget -- was aimed at sparking renewed attempts at compromise (E&ENews PM, March 9). Yet it only led to more discord, with Senate Democrats emphasizing the lack of consensus and House GOP leaders reveling in the fact that their CR won two more votes than the majority party's proposal.
Meanwhile, the planning challenges of operating under a second stopgap CR leaves the stakes as high as ever for U.S. EPA, the Energy Department, the Interior Department and other federal environmental agencies. The senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior and EPA funding, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, offered his sympathies Friday to the federal workers who will have to manage hiring and spending under still more uncertainty.
The short-term budget process makes agencies' work "extremely difficult," Moran said in an interview. "If I were a program manager, I don't know how I would cope with the situation."
At EPA, whose budget the House's long-term CR would slash by $3 billion, concerns remain high over the presence in that bill of multiple riders restricting agency regulations. But Senate Democrats insisting on a "clean CR" without policy riders won an unexpected ally yesterday in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a former White House budget chief often mentioned as a potential top-tier presidential candidate for 2012.
Daniels told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he considered it "better practice for lawmakers "to try to concentrate on making ends meet, which Washington obviously has failed to do for a long time, and have other policy debates in other places."
"[T]o see them arguing over nickels and dimes like this," Daniels said of Congress and the Obama administration, "from the vantage point of people who are making big changes, to make ends meet and stay out ... it's almost comic."
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House appropriations subpanel on EPA, told E&E Daily earlier this month that the "majority" of riders could be taken off the table should Democrats move their spending-cut targets closer to the GOP's level of $60 billion over seven months (E&ENews PM, March 2).
Should the new three-week CR pass easily this week, keeping the government funded until April 8, about one-sixth of that $60 billion already would be sliced from agencies' tillers for fiscal 2011. Even so, Democrats showed no signs of backing down from their insistence on preserving administration priorities such as scientific research and development.
And the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left Japan reeling prompted several Democrats to warn against the GOP CR's proposed funding cuts for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association weather monitoring.
"Congress must heed this cruel wakeup call and stop proposed cuts to essential NOAA prediction programs that would endanger lives," Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a Friday statement.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) drew a line in the sand Friday by saying this week's 21-day CR would be the last stopgap spending plan he endorses.
"You have the majority," Hoyer told House GOP leaders. "And with the majority, you have the responsibility to see if we can move this country forward."
But House Republicans were equally insistent that Democrats fulfill their governing responsibilities by coming to the table to discuss cuts beyond those that fell short in the Senate.
"Though there are visible divisions in the Democrat party, we hope that our friends on the other side of the aisle will work with the President and join us on a measure to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year that contains serious spending cuts and makes Washington begin to live within its means," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement.
In an interview Friday, Simpson said his conference's preference would be a long-term CR but acknowledged that "whether that will happen or not, who knows."
"We've put our marker out there and we need the Senate to pass something so we can go work with them," Simpson said.
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.