Senate truce on riders won’t last as bills hit floor

Source: Geof Koss and George Cahlink, E&E reporters • Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2016

Senate appropriators jump-started work on the annual spending bills Thursday by agreeing to hold off on adding controversial amendments in committee. But that bipartisan truce may only last until the first measure hits the floor this week.

The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday unanimously approved the $37.5 billion energy and water development spending bill, which funds the Energy Department, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after members offered and withdrew a number of amendments — including one that would block the joint U.S. EPA-Army Corps Waters of the U.S. rule (Greenwire, April 14).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday paved the way for action in the Senate next week on the Energy-Water bill by filing cloture to proceed to a previously House-passed bill that will carry the spending package. The cloture vote — which will have a 60-vote threshold — will be held Monday evening.

If cloture is invoked — as expected — the Senate will be off to its earliest start in decades for considering spending bills. McConnell has said the Senate will spend the next 12 weeks trying to pass as many of the appropriations bills as possible before Congress leaves for its extra-long summer recess.

But despite the early start, appropriators put their colleagues on notice that they’ll still bring up contentious issues when the bill hits the floor next week. They said they held off yesterday out of respect for the request by subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to avoid committee fights.

Alexander’s request to put aside rider fights for the floor wasn’t entirely new; he did the same thing in 2015 (Greenwire, May 21, 2015).

After fights over spending bills laden with “poison pills” helped stall the already-wobbly appropriations process last year, senators this week suggested they’re willing to show some restraint in committee in order to get the bills to the floor.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who sits on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee and is a frequent critic of the administration’s energy policies, said yesterday that desire on both sides to restore the appropriations process to some semblance of normality is strong.

“I think we need to get back to regular order, get appropriations bills passed through committee, get them on the floor for votes,” he told E&E Daily. “That’s our objective, and that’s why I think you’re seeing more cooperation today from both sides trying to remove very contentious riders here to get back to regular order and focused on how do you return to fiscal sanity in the appropriations and budget process.”

Daines signaled that administration critics are looking to other avenues for pushing back on an agenda they oppose.

“We can use other processes for some of these more controversial provisions that need to be addressed legislatively,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said this week that there have been no decisions on how to handle riders in that particularly contentious bill but noted that the lesson of last year’s appropriations process was clear.

“We think we saw what happened last year when there were more controversial riders that were associated with certain bills,” she said in an interview. “They just didn’t go anywhere, and Interior approps fell into that category.”

Murkowski said that she anticipates there will be a push to add controversial provisions to her bill, which funds the Interior Department and EPA and has been such a lightning rod for controversy that it’s been years since it’s seen the floor.

Whether or not to add contentious provisions to Interior-Environment either in the base bill — as happened last year — or by amendment in committee will have to carefully considered, she said.

“What we have to do is weigh, figure out how much they will weigh down a certain bill because there comes a point where — the good that’s in it — can’t carry the weight of certain riders,” she said.

While Democrats have repeatedly called for Republicans to drop contentious riders entirely, Murkowski dismissed the suggestion.

“I am not in the camp that says, ‘No riders at all,’ because we have riders in appropriations bills since time immemorial, so that’s not the approach,” she said. “The approach is to try and balance it in a way that gets you to success.”

Murkowski last year similarly downplayed the notion of weighing down spending bills with provisions that the White House would not accept, only to later unveil a bill that included numerous riders targeting EPA’s climate agenda and other policies.

However, McConnell, who last year took the unusual step of joining the Interior-Environment Subcommittee, later took credit for the move (Greenwire, July 8, 2015).

There may be some hints as to the Interior-Environment bill’s prospects for this year by next week, when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is expected to appear before the panel.

Allocations set

Another move made by Senate appropriators yesterday also could ease the path for spending bills.

Senate appropriators endorsed spending allocations for the 12 annual bills that reflect last year’s bipartisan budget deal, which set discretionary spending at $1.07 trillion. Democrats have said if Republicans abide by that level they would not vote against calling up the bills on the Senate floor.

Those allocations would provide:

  • $37.53 billion for the Energy and Water Development bill, a $355 million increase over current spending.
  • $32.03 billion for the Interior and Environment bill, a $134 million decrease over current spending.
  • $56.47 billion for the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill, a $1.1 billion decrease over current spending.
  • $56.28 billion for the Commerce, Justice and Science bill, a roughly $500 million increase.

In general, Senate appropriators largely flat-funded or cut spending bills for domestic programs while providing modest boosts for military, homeland security and bipartisan federal research efforts. They had limited options for large funding shifts this year with the overall discretionary figure set by the budget deal only $3 billion above current spending.