BUDGET:

Senate opens debate; vote-a-rama with controversial amendments looms

The Senate yesterday began debating its budget resolution, and it faces a marathon series of amendments aimed at forcing lawmakers to take positions on a variety of controversial issues. The votes are slated to start as soon as today and potentially stretch into the weekend.

The coming flood of amendments -- known on Capitol Hill as a vote-a-rama because budget rules allow an unlimited number of amendments to be offered -- is expected to cover a number of policy areas, with several senators said to be mulling measures to force votes on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, EPA climate rules, expanded oil drilling and Endangered Species Act enforcement, among other issues.

Meanwhile, the House today is expected to pass Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget resolution. Rules in the lower chamber kept extraneous policy amendments out of its budget debate, but the House yesterday did vote down several alternative budget resolutions -- from the conservative Republican Study Committee, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, House Democrats and a version of the Senate budget resolution.

Even if amendments pass in the Senate, they would have no immediate policy impact because the budget itself is nonbinding. Nonetheless, the votes would force senators to take tough positions, and they come at a time when controversial votes have been relatively rare in the upper chamber. Senate Republicans already are looking at the budget fight as an opportunity to generate political fodder to use against vulnerable Democrats in next year's election.

"We want to emphasize the difference between our budget and the Democratic budget," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said yesterday. "We believe in growing the economy, not growing the government."

Energy, EPA amendments

While the budget debate -- like almost everything else in Washington these days -- will focus primarily on the overarching issues of taxes, spending and debt, narrower policy fights also will receive some time in the spotlight.

"You'll see some energy stuff there," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told E&E Daily last night.

Murkowski may offer an amendment that would open new federal lands or waters to oil and natural gas exploration in order to fund an "energy security trust fund" to research alternative transportation fuels. President Obama has called on Congress to create such a trust fund but does not want to allow new drilling to fund it, dimming the proposal's chance of gaining traction on Capitol Hill (E&E Daily, March 20).

"We're mulling over what we might want to do with that, and certainly have some opportunities with the budget," Murkowski said yesterday. "The president has put his ... energy trust security trust out there, but it's tough to get something like that going if you don't have the money to put into it. So I think that our proposal is one that should get the attention of some folks."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) promised "lots" of amendments to the budget, which an aide said would include efforts to block EPA greenhouse gas regulation and target some Endangered Species Act activities. Inhofe is perhaps the Senate's most prominent skeptic of the prevailing scientific evidence that human activity is causing climate change, and he has been critical of endangered species decisions that interfere with energy development.

The Keystone XL pipeline, which for years has been waiting for a presidential permit to transport crude from Alberta's oil sands to Texas refineries, also is expected to be addressed via a Republican amendment, sources said this week.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) is among the pipeline's leading champions and earlier this month introduced a stand-alone bill that would force its approval, but he has not explicitly committed to pressing the issue on the budget. Asked about the possibility of an amendment yesterday, Hoeven would say only "we're working on it" before disappearing onto the Senate floor.

The budget also is likely to reopen the debate over the production tax credit, which aids development of wind, geothermal, biomass and other renewable sources. Observers say a Republican likely will offer an amendment that would eliminate the credit, but it remains unclear who that will be. Alexander, a leading PTC critic, said he has not decided whether to offer an amendment.

Democrats are preparing their own slate of amendments. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he is planning to offer amendments that would target offshore "tax havens." But he said he has not decided whether to offer an amendment targeting tax subsidies for fossil fuel companies -- an issue he addressed in stand-alone legislation last year.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) is planning an amendment aimed at boosting funding to mitigate and fight wildfires, a spokesman said yesterday.

Next steps

Amendment votes could start as soon as today and are expected to last at least through tomorrow night, Senate Democratic aides said yesterday. The amendments will be subject to a 50-vote threshold for passage, rather than the 60 votes that have become a de facto necessity to get anything through the Senate in recent years, a leadership aide said.

The budget must be subject to 50 hours of debate before amendment votes can begin, but some of that time could be yielded back to speed the process along. The Senate is scheduled to recess for the next two weeks to observe Passover and Easter, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said earlier this week that recess will not begin until work on the budget is complete.

Assuming the House and Senate both pass their budget resolutions this week, the chambers will be faced with the daunting -- some say impossible -- task of reconciling their sharply different visions of how much the government should tax and spend. That process, expected to pick up after recess, is causing more consternation than the amendment vote-a-rama.

"It's not that I'm unconcerned about some of those" amendments, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said yesterday. "What I'm really worried about is what do we do once ... we meet and try to hammer out a conference. That's what I worry about."

Carper said he hoped the Obama administration would follow up on the president's recent charm offensive aimed at congressional Republicans in the coming weeks.

"I think that's the time for them to be most constructive and to help us find the middle," he said. "My hope is the president's dinner with Republicans, his visits to the caucus lunches helped to prepare the soil, if you will, for what will happen in April."

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