APPROPRIATIONS:

Senate panel trims Interior-EPA budget from House levels

Legislation approved this morning by a Senate panel would slash environmental agencies' spending by $200 million from the levels approved by House appropriators.

The measure approved unanimously today by the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee requests $32.1 billion to fund the Interior Department, U.S. EPA and U.S. Forest Service for fiscal 2010, compared with the $32.3 billion requested in the measure approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week. The Senate package is $225 million below President Obama's request and $4.5 billion above 2009 levels.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the measure Thursday, and floor consideration of the House bill is expected Thursday or Friday.

"The [House] total is much higher than ours," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the subcommittee. "So that will be, definitely, a subject for conference."

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the subcommittee's ranking member, commended the legislation and its spending levels. "We don't agree on every detail of the bill, but we do agree on a great part of it and it represents a good bipartisan product," he said.

"I think it's appropriate in these times that we are recommending spending about $220 million less than the president's budget recommends," Alexander added. "These are times of some economic distress, and we need to recognize that."

No amendments were offered during today's markup. Feinstein said that she and Alexander would review any proposed amendments for inclusion in a manager's package offered during the full committee markup. Any provisions that could not be agreed to by both of them would be offered as separate amendments, she said.

EPA

The Senate bill is less generous toward EPA than the House version, with the chambers splitting on funding for water projects.

The agency would see $10.2 billion under the Senate measure, a 33 percent boost from last year's level but $380 million less than the House is proposing and $300 million less than Obama's request.

The differences largely lie in spending for clean water projects, which would receive an enormous boost under any of the proposals. The Senate bill includes $3.6 billion for water and sewer infrastructure, almost $300 million less than the House measure contains but more than double last year's funding level.

The local and regional projects have garnered bipartisan support from lawmakers.

"This will allow our communities to begin fixing approximately 1,327 sewer and drinking water facilities," Feinstein said today, noting the federal stimulus bill passed this year provided an additional $6.4 billion for the projects. "It is essentially the largest public infrastructure bill in the history of this committee."

The Senate bill would allot $400 million to a major initiative to restore the Great Lakes, $75 million less than both the president's request and the House measure. The project aims to restore water quality in the world's largest freshwater system, which has been struggling with invasive species, pollution and contaminated sediment.

The Superfund program would receive $1.3 billion, even with the levels in the president's request and the House bill and a 2 percent jump from last year.

The Senate package would fund $112 million for climate change protection activities at EPA -- a $17 million boost over 2009 levels, including funding for EPA's greenhouse gas reporting rule to be finalized later this year.

Other climate change programs included in the spending bill: $42 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin scientific monitoring and assessments to respond to climate change; $15 million to the Bureau of Land Management to respond to the climate change challenges in the West; and $22 million to the U.S. Geological Survey to expand global climate change research.

Grants offered under the Diesel Emission Reduction Act would receive $60 million under the bill, an amount equal to the levels proposed by the House bill and Obama.

Interior and Forest Service

Alexander lauded $419 million provided for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an increase of $127 million over 2009, according to the committee.

The bill also includes $6 billion for basic operations at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and BLM lands, Feinstein said, an increase of $350 million over 2009.

Feinstein particularly praised an increase of $130 million for basic operations of the National Park Service, saying it continues a recent trend of increasing the park budget that has made a "real difference" in the parks' quality. Alexander also said he was "particularly pleased" with park funding. But he noted that the committee did not provide $25 million for public-private matching grants, which the administration requested and the House included.

"I think that's prudent given the times," Alexander said. "That's something perhaps we can consider in the future."

Overall, the Park Service would receive $2.71 billion, slightly below the House bill. The Senate bill would also provide $1.56 billion for the Forest Service operations, roughly on par with the House. That includes $145 million for law enforcement to combat drug cultivation, $338 million for forest products funding and $290 million for recreation programs.

FWS would receive roughly $1.61 billion, $29 million less than the administration request. That includes $488.6 million for national wildlife refuges, slightly above the administration proposal but lower than the House's $503 million.

The Senate bill provides $1.145 billion for BLM, about on par with the administration's request but slightly higher than the House version. The bill would also provide $1.044 billion for USGS and $181.5 million for the Minerals Management Service.

Like the House, the Senate bill does not include an administration proposal to impose a new $4-per-acre fee on companies in the Gulf of Mexico when oil and gas leases are in "nonproducing status." The administration has not yet provided a detailed proposal. The bill also boosts the costs of applications for permits to drill from $4,000 to $6,500.

Firefighting

Senators of both parties praised a big boost in wildfire funding. The Senate bill includes $3.56 billion for wildfire fighting and fire risk reduction programs, $68 million more than the administration requested but almost $100 million less than the House bill included. The additional funding over last year's $2.987 billion is meant to end the cycle of recent years when agencies run out of firefighting money and have to borrow from other accounts, and then hope that Congress replenishes the money, Feinstein said.

That total includes $1.86 billion for fire suppression, which fully funds the average cost of past wildfire seasons. "That's precisely what has been spent on average in each of the last three fiscal years," Feinstein said. "We're finally stepping up to the plate and acknowledging the actual cost of fighting fires."

The suppression total also incorporates the administration's proposed $357 million for a contingent fund that would only be tapped if federal agencies exhausted regularly budgeted money for wildfires.

The bill also includes $556 million for hazardous fuels reduction -- a boost over the $520 million requested by the administration but less than the $611 million provided by the House -- and $979 million for firefighter salaries and equipment.

Alexander agreed with Feinstein saying that the most important part of the bill financially is that "we're being honest about firefighting."

"We don't want the U.S. Forest Service to become the U.S. fire department," he said.

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