Dems skeptical of Interior-EPA bill ever reaching Senate floor

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 17, 2016

Against a backdrop of stark partisan division, Senate appropriators yesterday approved a $32.7 billion bill to fund U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Forest Service through the next fiscal year.

The question now is whether the measure has a prayer of going any further.

No, predicted Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee. It has been years since an Interior-Environment appropriations bill has made it to the full Senate. This round will probably be no different, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said during yesterday’s markup (Greenwire, June 16).

“It’s quite likely that this bill will never be considered on the floor because of the riders,” Durbin said in reference to provisions that would block key Obama administration environmental regulations, give special treatment to biomass as a carbon source and allow construction of a contested gravel road through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriation Subcommittee, staunchly defended the policy add-ons, saying that some had bipartisan support and that the labeling of others as “poison-pill” was “probably in the eye of the beholder.”

In an interview afterward, Murkowski said leaders had not given an indication of when they may want to bring the bill up for consideration. How Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “is going to queue them up has always been his call,” she said.

But Murkowski acknowledged that the partisan vibe surrounding the bill — which cleared the committee on a 16-14 vote — isn’t a plus. “It doesn’t make it impossible, but it does make it more difficult,” she said.

The Senate measure is notably more restrained that its House counterpart in its use of riders. It does not attempt, for example, to block or delay the administration’s Clean Power Plan, newly issued methane regulations on the oil and industry, or a recently adopted air quality standard for ozone.

But its recommended spending levels reflect lawmakers’ continuing struggle to live within budget caps that remain tight by historical standards.

While Murkowski touted a proposed 18 percent increase in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund — which helps pay for water projects — she noted that increases in some programs have to be offset with cuts in others.

One such area is the core of EPA’s budget. Under the bill, spending on clean air and climate programs would drop 10 percent from $273.1 million to $245.8 million, according the report accompanying the measure. The agency’s enforcement budget would face a similar percentage reduction to $216.6 million.

By way of explanation, Murkowski said the bill targeted EPA initiatives that are responsible for generating regulations like the Clean Power Plan that are now tied up in court.

“What we did is we provided funding that focuses the agency specifically to clean up the environment,” she said.

Not persuaded was Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the Appropriation Committee’s top Democrat, who cited the proposed cuts and the riders in explaining her decision to oppose the bill.

Bottom-line pressures show up in other areas. The bill would fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative at $300 million, or $50 million above the White House’s request. The program is a priority for Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is running for re-election this year and is widely considered the Senate’s most endangered incumbent.

Like its House counterpart, the Senate version zeros out a “multipurpose” grant program kick-started last year with a $21 million infusion to help states implement environmental programs they deem a priority. Because EPA opted to implement the program “in a manner that was not flexible,” the report says, the appropriations committee chose not to keep the money flowing.

There was one major exception to the bill’s parsimonious approach: the committee’s bipartisan decision yesterday to add $661 million to federal wildfire management programs. But that extra money is designated as “emergency” funding, meaning that the budget caps don’t apply (see related story).

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.