Omnibus talks enter crucial phase

By Geof Koss, Manuel Quiñones, Hannah Hess | 12/03/2015 07:32 AM EST

Negotiations to head off a government shutdown in a little more than a week are kicking into high gear, with both parties trading offers — as well as rhetoric — over what should and shouldn’t be in the omnibus spending measure under construction.

Negotiations to head off a government shutdown in a little more than a week are kicking into high gear, with both parties trading offers — as well as rhetoric — over what should and shouldn’t be in the omnibus spending measure under construction.

After rejecting House Republicans’ opening omnibus bid over the inclusion of a host of policy riders, Democrats yesterday were preparing their own counteroffer (Greenwire, Dec. 12). Senate Democrats will also huddle later today to talk year-end strategy.

"The message is, what they sent over wasn’t serious," Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, said yesterday. "It didn’t reflect our values, whether it came to the environment or workers or labor, education. We are presenting this counterproposal. And if they are serious, we will be sitting down and working on a final proposal."


Lowey’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), said yesterday that it was too early to assess the prospects for reaching a deal.

"We’ve got the omni, but we don’t have the bus," she told reporters. "So we’re at the first stage of this leadership negotiation. We’re far apart on these policy riders and then on some money issues. But the policy riders are our biggest challenge."

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers told reporters last night that he had not yet heard from Democrats on the GOP proposal.

"The ball is in their court," Rogers told reporters who caught up to the Kentucky Republican after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) whispered in his ear. "We sent them last night a global bill, and we’ve not heard anything back."

"When negotiated in good faith, we can get things done," he answered, when asked about frustrations. "I have not seen that yet."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest yesterday warned that Republicans were headed straight to another government shutdown unless they dropped efforts to undermine U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan and other riders.

"The effort that they are engaged in now is to [fill] the bill up with ideological riders," Earnest said.

But Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) said yesterday that he and other Republicans on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee would "push and encourage the leadership to work very hard to keep and retain these important riders."

"We fought very hard in committee to get them included and maintain them, as critical to the future of certainly states like West Virginia," Jenkins said. "We’re not going to win this battle with a single-shot approach. We need to fight this administration’s regulatory overreach on every avenue possible because this administration is using every tool in their toolbox — even some that aren’t in their toolbox — to kill coal."

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said yesterday that he’s fighting to get the sage grouse amendment that was stripped from the National Defense Authorization Act included in the spending bill.

"I’ve been focusing basically all of my efforts to try to get that put back in, because it didn’t stay in the NDAA," Amodei told E&E Daily. As an appropriator, Amodei offered the same amendment to the House’s fiscal 2016 funding bill for the Interior Department (Greenwire, June 25).

Describing the Democratic position as "a very monolithic wall," Amodei said negotiating environmental riders poses a challenge. "That is, ‘anything environmental, hands off,’" he said.

Another GOP appropriator, Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, said the talks have hit "crunch time" and predicted that pragmatism would begin to overtake the rhetoric surrounding the omnibus.

"There gets to a point where you have to close out," he told reporters yesterday, "where you have to negotiate in good faith, where you have to be willing to not posture anymore. And I think we’re there."

Mikulski also expressed cautious optimism.

"We’re facing this avalanche of legislation," she said. "The question is, does it create a momentum? I do think we’ll get there, but this is just this first step."

Crude battle

It’s clear that both sides sense that momentum — and are looking to capitalize on it.

Backers of crude oil exports continue to press for a repeal of the long-standing ban on such shipments before the end of the year, despite being thwarted in their efforts to insert it in another must-pass bill — the highway conference report agreed to this week.

Senate Democrats this week charged that an extension of an expired program that provides health care to Sept. 11, 2001, first responders failed to make the cut for the highway bill because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded a repeal of the crude exports ban as well, according to the Associated Press.

But Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who has played a major role in the exports push, yesterday blamed Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for keeping exports out of the highway bill.

"In the final analysis, Senator Reid wouldn’t go for it," he said.

Nonetheless, Hoeven said efforts to repeal the ban before the end of the year continue, meaning a repeal would have to be carried by the omnibus or the tax extenders package, although the two are likely to be combined.

"We still have a good chance to get it," Hoeven said, although he complained that Democrats have an ever-changing list of demands they want in exchange for crude exports, which "depends on who you ask."

"There’s so many different things that they seem to want for it," Hoeven said, citing an extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as extensions of the renewable production tax credit and investment tax credit, and a "long elimination of riders."

"There’s all these things, but at some point, they’ve got to get real," Hoeven said.

Pressed on the state of omnibus negotiations yesterday, Reid declined to comment beyond twice telling E&E Daily that "we’re working on it."

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) said export backers are pursuing all avenues to get a repeal through this year, including the omnibus. Asked about the likelihood of getting it done, he responded, "I would say 40, 60 [percent]."

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday said it was unclear whether a deal could be reached to lift the ban this year, which he called a top priority.

"In the state of Oklahoma, we have just hundreds of people being dropped off, unemployed right now, because they don’t have a market," he told E&E Daily.

Asked if he could support a deal, Inhofe said he would have to consider the specifics.

"I’d do an awful lot to get the ban lifted," he said.