POLITICS:

Budget fight and squabble over energy riders intensify as shutdown nears

Congress lurched closer to a government shutdown yesterday when negotiations stumbled over cuts to energy spending and other programs before temporary federal funding expires on Friday.

President Obama stepped into the debate yesterday and objected to a Republican plan to extend current spending for one week, through April 15, while slashing $12 billion between now and then. Among those cuts, $632 million would come from energy and water programs.

Obama insisted yesterday that the measure be abandoned, so that lawmakers could focus on negotiating a spending plan for the remaining fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. The two sides appeared to be making progress last week when Vice President Joe Biden announced that they had agreed to cut $33 billion through September.

"We are now at the point where there is no excuse to extend this further," Obama told reporters after yesterday's meeting. "The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown."

But Republicans dismiss claims that they agreed to limit their cuts to $33 billion. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared in a statement yesterday that his party will "fight for the largest cuts possible."

The deadline clash foreshadows a season of partisan budget battles. The current squabble will likely be the easiest to navigate. A larger challenge entered the Capitol yesterday, when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the budget chairman, released a Republican spending plan for 2012. It proposed deep cuts to energy and environmental programs prioritized by Obama, who, the document says, is responsible for a "toxic mix of increased spending and more regulations."

"Since his inauguration, the President has promoted a heavy-handed compliance culture in the energy sector, brimming with regulations and reckless spending on government-appointed winners and losers," says Ryan's budget.

'Difficulty in accepting' loss of riders

The plan takes aim at U.S. EPA climate rules, regulations on oil and gas drilling, funding for "politically favored renewable-energy interests," and agencies that seek to "impose a job-destroying national energy tax."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said "we strongly disagree" with Ryan's approach. But that's a fight for another day.

The maneuvering by both parties now is to avoid being blamed for a potential shutdown of the government. Both sides are blaming the other as the likelihood of a partial shuttering has increased. Republicans claim Democrats are using budget "gimmicks" to hold down spending cuts for the remaining fiscal year. Democrats say the GOP is being led into defunding extremes by its tea party members.

The one-week extension offered by Republicans includes a flash point provision that reduces abortion funding, a policy rider that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) described as "something to just poke us in the eye."

Riders have aggravated the negotiations, and the two parties appear to hold different views about which ones might be included in the spending packages. Reid insists that provisions halting EPA's regulations on greenhouse gases are off-limits.

But Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, indicated yesterday that they're an important element to the party's conservative members. He cast doubt on Reid's assertions.

"I have a lot of difficulty in accepting that myself or, I think, getting the acceptance of our members," Cantor said of taking the EPA language out of play. "It is something that I think most members go home and hear about every week."

Obama: Drop the partisan stuff

Obama urged Republicans to remove the provisions from the negotiating table yesterday, a move that could prevent him from facing a difficult choice. Some analysts believe he might sign funding legislation with a rider delaying EPA greenhouse gas rules rather than risk the consequences of a veto that closes the government.

"What we can't be doing is using last year's budget process to have arguments about abortion; to have arguments about the Environmental Protection Agency; to try to use this budget negotiation as a vehicle for every ideological or political difference between the two parties," Obama said. "That's what the legislature is for, is to have those arguments, but not stuff it all into one budget bill."

The one-week continuing resolution, offered by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, doesn't include any EPA riders, or those that would forbid the president to hire "czars" for climate or international environmental talks.

Instead, it cuts $192 million in environmental cleanup programs at the Department of Energy -- programs that Obama has signaled he's willing to trim in the fiscal 2012 budget.

It begins reducing the Uranium Enrichment Decontamination and Decommissioning Fund, which Obama had also suggested in his fiscal 2012 budget. It funds the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program at $10 million -- just as the House and Senate proposed in their continuing resolutions.

More energy cuts

Federal funding for high-speed and intercity rail, an Obama priority that H.R. 1 zeroed out, gets $1 billion in Rogers' bill, the same figure as the Senate's proposal. And the Clean Technology Fund, a State Department program that fits into Obama's international work on climate, gets $250 million in Rogers' bill, which is where the Senate ended up.

Rogers' main cuts come from rescinding unspent bucks at DOE, including $30.6 million from the Fossil Energy program and $18 million from the Clean Coal Technology program. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, DOE's main office working on zero-carbon technologies, would have to surrender $11 million.

In total, Rogers' office said, energy and water programs would face $632 million of cuts.

It's unclear when the temporary measure might be voted on, but Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, said he expects it to reach the Senate by as early as today. Reid, however, described the one-week package as dead on arrival.

First, it must pass the House. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, said that he will be whipping members to vote against it.

"I hope other Democrats will oppose it," he said yesterday. "I don't know that every Democrat will oppose it."

Still, Republicans are unlikely to need the help. Conservative members would likely welcome such deep cuts to spending. Unlike the last temporary funding measure, over which dozens of GOP lawmakers deserted their leadership, this bill is more aggressive.

Earlier, Republicans sought to slice $2 billion in spending per week. Under those parameters, the one-week measure would achieve six weeks of cuts.