Senate sets $37.5B spending cap for energy, water programs

Source: Hannah Hess, Tiffany Stecker and George Cahlink, E&E reporters • Posted: Friday, April 15, 2016

The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday voted unanimously to allocate $37.5 billion to the subcommittee that funds the Department of Energy, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, an increase of approximately $355 million above current spending levels that may undercut President Obama’s priorities on climate change.

The so-called 302(b) allocation is the amount of money the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee will have available when it writes its fiscal 2017 spending bill, which funds a host of nuclear security, science research, environmental cleanup and water infrastructure projects.

“It also cuts wasteful spending,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who holds the gavel on the panel. He noted that the bill would cut $125 million in funding for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, a massive fusion project under construction in France (E&ENews PM, April 13).

Alexander, who has signaled that DOE’s science programs are a top priority, said the Office of Science and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, are the only two offices that will get more money on the non-defense side of the agency’s spending (E&E Daily, April 13).

That means funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, key to the Obama administration’s proposal to double clean energy research and development over five years as part of its Mission Innovation proposal, will remain flat from last year’s level.

“Given the budget constraints, this is a good allocation,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel. She said she would have liked to invest more money in Obama’s initiative to combat climate change, but senators were “unable to make it work with the allocation that we received.”

Feinstein said, “Both Sen. Alexander and I have had to make some tough choices.”

Feinstein applauded the inclusion of $100 million for the Bureau of Reclamation’s drought program to help the agency address the ongoing drought in her state. The same level of funding was included in the fiscal 2016 omnibus bill.

“We had hopes that this year’s El Niño would refill our reservoirs, but the drought unfortunately persists,” Feinstein said.

The legislation includes $6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works division, a record level for the agency and slightly lower than the House’s appropriation of $6.1 billion. The president’s fiscal 2017 budget request offered $4.62 billion for the corps.

Both Alexander and Feinstein supported the legislation’s direction to make full use of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, a fund that is paid in part by fees from the waterways users. The spending bill also includes $1.3 billion for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, the level recommended in the last Water Resources Development Act, as well as an additional $50 million for ports that do not benefit from the funds in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund pot.

Amendments

Several senators withdrew amendments at the markup to respect Alexander’s request to pass a rider-free spending bill but voiced their intentions to revive the provisions on the Senate floor.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) took back his amendment to defund the implementation of the U.S. EPA-Army Corps Clean Water Act jurisdictional rule, which seeks to clarify which waterways and wetlands receive automatic protection under the act.

Hoeven said he would also raise the issue in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which appropriates money to EPA.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) withdrew an amendment to provide emergency funding to clear sediment in his state’s waterways. The recent floods in the Upper Mississippi River Basin have flushed the sediment downriver, where it hinders river transportation and costs millions of dollars to clear. The Congressional Budget Office recently changed the score on the costs of the provision, making it ineligible for disaster funding, he added.

Cassidy said he would withdraw his amendment with “assurances this will be addressed later in the appropriations process.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) offered an amendment to increase funding for ARPA-E, “a program that has a lot of momentum,” he said, noting additional funding in the House version of the bill.

“We will work with him to see if we can identify an appropriate offset,” Alexander said. “We’ve been looking for such an offset, and it’s hard to find.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) offered an amendment aimed at boosting wind energy. Alexander said the bill includes $50 million for offshore research on wind energy but noted his opposition to “big, tall, ugly windmills.” Relying on wind energy when other sources are at the ready is “like going to war in sailboats when nuclear submarines are available,” he said.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) offered, then withdrew, an amendment calling for the Government Accountability Office to study the domestic marketplace for crude oil exports.

Allocations set

Appropriators also agreed to conform to an overall $1.07 trillion spending level for fiscal 2017, with $74 billion in funding for overseas contingency operations. The committee approved, 29-1, allocations for the 12 fiscal 2017 spending bills based on the overall discretionary levels set by last year’s budget deal. Those allocations are the top line that appropriators must adhere to as they write the annual spending bills.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the committee, said the numbers were “fair but snug,” adding that she hoped there would be additional action to address the Zika virus, fight the opioid crisis and help with water emergencies in Flint, Mich., and other communities.

“This year, we need to act without delay to fight these rapidly developing emergencies,” Mikulski said.

About half the bills, largely those funding domestic programs, would be marked for small decreases, while bills providing funding for the military and homeland security operations would see modest increases.

The Interior-Environment spending bill would receive $32.034 billion, a $134 million decrease from the spending for fiscal 2016. The measure funds the Interior Department, EPA and other land management agencies and has been a perennial target for Republicans unhappy with the Obama administration’s environmental policies.

The Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill would receive $57.68 billion, a $1.1 billion cut from current spending levels. The reduction could affect funding for a range of transportation grants for sustainable transit and community programs, as well as for high-speed rail projects and Amtrak subsidies long criticized by the GOP.

The Commerce-Justice-Science bill would receive an increase of about $500 million, one of the largest increases of any domestic bill, to $56.28 billion. The bill funds agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service and NASA, as well as a range of federal research programs.

The Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill that the GOP has typically sought to scale back would be cut about $300 million to $161.857 billion. Some of current bill’s funding has gone toward the water crisis in Flint, and appropriators could opt to direct more that way in this year’s bill.

The Financial Services and General Government bill was cut about $900 million to $22.393 billion, a move that could mean fewer dollars for White House policy shops on the environment.

The Agriculture bill would be trimmed about $600 million over current spending to $21.25 billion, while the State Department and Foreign Operations bill would be cut about $500 million to $52.1 billion.

The House has yet to release full allocations because it hasn’t settled on a budget top line for discretionary spending in fiscal 2017.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.