This story was updated at 3:31 p.m. EDT.
The Senate Appropriations Committee this morning approved the $30 billion fiscal 2016 spending bill for the Interior Department and U.S. EPA on a 16-14 party-line vote, as Democratic frustration with spending cuts and multiple policy riders boiled over.
However, Republicans remained largely unified in rejecting amendments to strip contentious policy riders from the bill.
Both parties traded barbs over the measure from the outset of the markup, with Democrats slamming the $7.6 billion that the bill would hand EPA, a more than $538 million reduction from current levels. The Interior Department would see $11 billion and the Forest Service $5.12 billion under the bill, which was approved in subcommittee Tuesday (E&ENews PM, June 16).
Appropriations Committee ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) reiterated that Democrats will block all motions to proceed to spending bills that hew to the current spending levels, in an attempt to force Republicans into talks on replacing across-the-board sequestration cuts.
"We need it sooner rather than later," she said.
But in a twist, all 14 Democrats on the committee voted to oppose the Interior-EPA bill to protest what Mikulski called "11 poison pill riders" targeting EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule, the Bureau of Land Management’s hydraulic fracturing rule and EPA’s proposed update of federal air quality standards for ozone, to name a few. A majority of Democrats have supported advancing spending bills to the floor this year, and all but four voted to do so for the Homeland Security spending bill today.
Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) rejected the "poison pill" label, saying the WOTUS rule "is incredibly important to the people of my state." And she reiterated that the remaining riders reflect widespread congressional frustration with the Obama administration’s energy agenda, as well as the limited legislative options for critics to push back.
"I’ve heard from so many people … that we must deal" with these issues, she said.
Amid the heated debate on spending and policy riders, the usually reserved Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lashed out at Democrats for blocking the appropriations process to score political points.
"All you guys are doing is balling up the process and making the Senate look bad," McConnell said, his voice rising. "When does this ever stop?"
But Mikulski blamed Republicans for mucking up the appropriations process over the past five years. "We didn’t start this kind of fight," she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in turn lectured Republicans for using the spending bill to block environmental policies they oppose, arguing that doing so would result in a continuing resolution or omnibus package to fund the federal government come September.
But McConnell argued the riders were necessary to restrain the Obama administration, singling out EPA in particular. "There’s been an all-out assault on the American economy," he said. "But in all the overreach, none has been more dramatic than at the EPA."
The committee voted 16-14 for an amendment by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) that would bar for one year an Endangered Species Act listing for the lesser prairie chicken.
The committee rejected on a 14-16 party-line vote an amendment by Interior-Environment Subcommittee ranking member Tom Udall (D-N.M.) that would have increased funding for the programs in the bill.
A second Udall amendment that would have stripped the 11 "poison pill" riders also fell on a party-line vote.
Udall separately tried to strip the rider that would allow states to opt out of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which he called "a backdoor effort to undermine the Clean Air Act." That amendment failed on a 15-15 vote, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine the sole Republican to join Democrats.
The committee voted 14-16 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that would have boosted funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund from the bill’s proposed level of $292 million to about $400 million, which is level with the amount of discretionary funding requested by the Obama administration.
Tester’s funding increase would not take effect until, and unless, Congress passes a new budget agreement to dissolve the sequester caps.
The fund is the government’s main vehicle for acquiring new lands, but it has come under criticism from Republicans including Murkowski as fiscally reckless at a time when lands agencies face several billions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs.
"Two-hundred-ninety-two million dollars is not chump change, but it is not near enough to take care of the demand that’s out there," Tester said. "The demand is huge, and these areas aren’t going to be around forever. They’re going to be developed."
Murkowski said the bill’s proposed funding for LWCF, which is about $14 million below current levels, is "not insubstantial."
She said it accomplishes her goals to shift funding away from federal land acquisitions toward grants for states and for easements that protect private forests. Stateside grants would be funded at $55 million, their highest level since 2006 and $7 million above current levels. The Forest Legacy program would get about $60 million, its highest level since 2010 and $7 million above current levels.
Murkowski said Tester’s bill is not offset and would break budget caps.
But the committee did approve by voice vote an amendment by Collins to restore $14 million to LWCF with offsets elsewhere in the Interior-EPA bill.
That the bill would keep LWCF funding at its current funding level — despite the Senate’s change of hands to spending-averse Republicans — is viewed as a major victory by conservation and sportsmen’s groups, which are among LWCF’s biggest fans.
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.