The wheels are in motion for a rare Senate markup of the annual spending bill that funds the Interior Department and U.S. EPA.
It’s been at least five years since the Senate Appropriations Committee moved the controversial spending bill, but a subcommittee markup is planned for June 16, said Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
"We’re on deck," she said yesterday.
The markup, which will be followed by a full committee vote two days later, would help make good on the pledge by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to restore the chamber to regular order.
That’s been particularly challenging for the wayward appropriations process, which in recent years has kept the government operating through a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills that often make it into law months after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
The appropriations breakdown in no small part can be traced back to the programs funded by the Interior-EPA bill, which has been ground zero in the heated energy policy fights between the Obama administration and Republicans.
Under the $30.01 billion spending cap approved by the Appropriations panel yesterday, Murkowski will need to find about $400 million in cuts to programs within the bill’s jurisdiction for fiscal 2016 (Greenwire, May 21).
But her bigger challenge will be managing the pent-up frustration among Republicans who see EPA as the poster child for regulatory overreach. Murkowski said she’s already fielding a flurry of inquiries from lawmakers as she writes the bill.
"We just have so many different regulations that we’re dealing with, regulations that colleagues are reviewing or hearing from their folks about, and they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to help us out, you’ve got to do something here,’" she said. "So there’s considerable pressure on us to weigh in with an agency that many feel has pushed the envelope when it comes to the regulations that are out there."
EPA critics appear to have already notched a win in the upcoming bill, which Murkowski said will take on the agency’s disputed "Waters of the United States" proposal, a joint effort with the Army Corps of Engineers. Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) yesterday offered and withdrew an amendment blocking funding for the WOTUS plan during the markup of the energy and water spending bill, after securing a pledge from Murkowski to revisit the rider in EPA’s budget bill.
Hoeven later said Murkowski’s pledge, as well as the stated support of appropriator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), demonstrates sufficient support from Republicans for moving the bill through committee with the WOTUS language. Alexander and McConnell, who Hoeven said also supports tackling WOTUS through the appropriations process, both sit on the Interior-EPA subcommittee.
"What I needed and what I believe I now have is the necessary votes to attach it on Interior-EPA, which was really the objective from the start because EPA is obviously the problem," Hoeven said.
While WOTUS is among the biggest of the EPA regulatory fights, the decision to address it in the agency’s spending bill doesn’t necessarily mean that riders blocking the Clean Power Plan or the proposed update of federal air quality standards for ozone will make the cut.
Murkowski said decisions on what other policies to tackle will depend on the level of bipartisan support for a particular issue, and whether the addition of a rider will ultimately jeopardize passage of the Interior-EPA bill on the floor.
"I think we have to weigh all of these and do exactly that," she said.
She said WOTUS is unique in that critics of the plan are already considered to be close to the 60 votes needed to pass controversial legislation in the Senate.
"I think this is something that goes beyond party," Murkowski said. "I think that this is something that if you have rural parts of your state, you’ve got agricultural interests, you’re hearing from folks."
Hoeven expects additional controversial amendments to surface in committee, but said they’ll have to be handled delicately to ensure they don’t sink the bill.
"You got to get everybody lined up to do it on these things, which is part of what I’ve been working on, but there’ll be others," he said. "Now the challenge then is going to be on the floor, not from the standpoint of keeping it in there, whether it’s WOTUS or something else. We’ll be able to keep these provisions in, but at the end, you’ve still got to command 60 votes on the bill. And whether we can do both, get them included and get the bill passed is going to be the real test."