POLITICS: PennAve

Environment bogs down spending bills

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Congress,Interior,Harry Reid,Mitch McConnell,EPA,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Budgets and Deficits,Zack Colman,Magazine,Power Plants

Congress' appropriations process is still broken.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by the House and the Senate in January was supposed to signal a return to "regular order" in which committees approve bipartisan funding legislation, pass it on the floor and then hammer out the differences.

But congeniality is fleeting on Capitol Hill. Regular order might more accurately represent disorder; that eleventh-hour spending deal might have been merely a tease.

"Many people, myself included, thought that that agreement ... paved the way for a relatively smooth appropriations process," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "But the reality, of course, has proven to be far different."

Contentious issues have derailed energy and environment spending bills in both the House and the Senate, injecting substantive and often partisan debates into what traditionally had been routine.

The funding battle reflects a stasis on the policy side. There hasn't been a substantive energy vote on the Senate floor since 2007. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is charging ahead with new regulations on power plants and other areas. Republicans contend Reid is shutting them out from having their say. Reid says GOP amendments aren't germane to the legislation.

The party divide on social spending programs like Medicaid and Medicare always troubled the appropriations bills that covered them. But now, "it looks like the list has gotten longer. It includes environmental- and Interior-related bills as well," said Manley, who directs the communications practice at Quinn Gillespie and Associates.

In June, Reid pulled the energy and water spending bill partly because Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed an amendment blocking Environmental Protection Agency power plant rules, which the GOP opposes. Many Democrats would have backed the provision -- reaching 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles was less certain -- in what could have been a blow to the Obama administration.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, saw McConnell's push as emblematic of Republican efforts to attach environmental and energy provisions that Democrats say bog down the Senate.

"I cannot recall an amendment in the 21 years I've been here that is so much outside of the jurisdiction of this subcommittee," the California Democrat said in June.

Asked whether a spending bill that blocks EPA greenhouse gas regulations would ever get to the floor, Reid responded with a flat "no."

That leaves little hope for appropriations, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who directed the Congressional Budget Office during President George W. Bush's administration.

"Republicans, when they do the appropriations in the House, they often do riders because that's the only way they can control the administration," said Holtz-Eakin, now president of conservative think tank American Action Forum. "I don't see any hope."

House appropriations subcommittees that cover the Energy and Interior departments and the EPA have tacked on a slew of riders designed to handcuff the Obama administration's climate-change efforts. The $30.2 billion Interior and Environment spending bill that the GOP-led subcommittee passed Wednesday did just that, and would also cut EPA funding 9 percent.

Environmental groups flagged many anti-environmental riders as being too aggressive, as did Democrats.

Ranking Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey of New York said that of the 11 funding bills the committee has considered, the Interior and Environment one "is perhaps the worst."

If it's the worst, it's unlikely to pass the Senate. The White House waved its veto pen at the $34 billion House spending bill that covers energy and water programs, saying it included too many anti-environmental riders and gutted the administration's clean-energy efforts.

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