As talks on a massive government funding bill enter their last lap today, GOP-backed restrictions on White House environmental policy remain an obstacle large enough to potentially push U.S. EPA and Interior Department spending out of a final deal.
That the dozens of policy riders that were attached to the House's 2012 spending bill for U.S. EPA and the Interior Department remain a thorn in lawmakers' sides is not surprising, given the intensity of the partisan clash they have driven all year long.
But with time running short for a deal after today's public meeting on an omnibus appropriations bill -- the final text likely must be filed by Monday to tee up a vote before federal funding expires Dec. 16 -- the impasse could force environmental programs to drop out of that massive package and operate under a continuing resolution (CR) for 10 more months.
Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, the top House Democratic appropriator for EPA and Interior, yesterday said those provisions and the similarly controversial health and labor plan could be booted from the larger bill.
"There's a very good chance we're going to get stuck with a CR," he said. "You'd prune off the two bills and go forward with the other seven."
A second House Democratic appropriator, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, likewise was pessimistic about the fate of riders on the health and labor bill she supervises and suggested the omnibus measure could be moved without the two plans.
But that outcome is by no means guaranteed. An X factor is the defection of more than 100 House conservatives last month on a "minibus" appropriations bill for agriculture and transportation that was far less fraught with tension than the remaining spending plans. If a similar number of Republicans desert this month's coming omnibus to protest its overall spending levels, House GOP leaders could be forced to strike the environmental riders in order to hash together a majority vote with significant Democratic backing.
"One of our frustrations is that if not all the Republicans are voting for the bill, then negotiating on riders, we have to go" more toward the Democratic position, said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a senior House appropriator.
Among the major EPA policy limits hotly sought by the House GOP are handcuffs on the agency's cross-state air pollution rule, its curbs on toxic emissions from power plants, its industrial boiler regulations and its proposed checks on water pollution from mining operations. Neither the House nor the Senate saw their Interior-EPA spending bills through to a floor vote, adding to the uncertainty that shrouds those riders heading into today's conference meeting (E&ENews PM).
Despite GOP appropriators' willingness to cut a deal, Moran said, "House Republican leadership may be insisting on too many of these riders."
"Maybe you can write a little bit of legislation on an appropriations bill," he added, signaling an openness to smaller-scale riders, "but you're not going to write the whole environmental code."
At the same time, some environmental riders may be the best lure GOP leaders have to woo tea party-aligned conservatives who have spent much of their time in office slamming EPA as an out-of-control drag on business growth. "I don't like riders very much, but for other people, it's the only thing that would make them vote for [a spending bill] one way or another," moderate Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) said yesterday.
Such pressures did not ruffle the confidence of Republicans long committed to reining in President Obama's EPA through the appropriations process, as well as the Energy and Commerce Committee. Asked about the prospect of riders falling by the wayside to win Democratic votes for a 2012 spending blueprint, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) described himself as unconcerned with "second- or third-degree variables" such as the leverage that party unity might afford the GOP.
Barton yesterday declined to address how he would vote on an omnibus that had no major environmental riders, saying he has to tell his leaders how he plans to vote should the 2012 spending bill come to the floor as expected next week.
Moran said the overall funding cuts imposed on EPA under a prospective deal would be about "a 3 percent cut, 4 [percent] maybe," or about half the House-passed levels.
The Interior-EPA spending bill pulled from the House floor in August would have given the former agency $9.9 billion for fiscal 2012, or $715 million less than it got in 2011. EPA would have taken a hit of about $1.5 billion below 2011 levels, or $7.1 billion on a yearlong basis (E&E Daily, July 13).
Simpson confirmed yesterday in a brief interview that the riders on his subpanel's bill remained unresolved and that the overall funding levels in any conference agreement would be higher than the House-passed version.
Energy and water issues
A less divisive segment of the omnibus bill being finalized at today's public meeting is funding for the Energy Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and related agencies for fiscal 2012.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has backed away from an earlier attempt to include funding in that bill for the controversial nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but his aides said yesterday that he is hoping funds the House included for the project would end up in a final conference agreement.
Kirk began circulating a letter last month to shore up support for $45 million the House included in its DOE spending bill to fund the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's review of Yucca. The Obama administration has abandoned the repository, citing lack of public support, and NRC has since closed down its review. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) filed an amendment to counter Kirk's efforts by blocking Yucca funding (E&ENews PM, Nov. 16).
Riders related to the GOP investigation of bankrupt DOE-backed solar company Solyndra could yet rear their head in the final days before the Dec. 16 deadline for clearing a fresh government spending plan.
Bass put the coming make-or-break moment for both parties' leaders in stark terms yesterday: "I wake up every morning and thank my lucky stars that I'm not the speaker or the majority leader in either the Senate or the House."
Schedule: The meeting of conferees on an omnibus appropriations package is today at 10:30 a.m. in HC-5, Capitol building.
Reporters Katie Howell, Hannah Northey and Emily Yehle contributed.