Senate approves Interior-EPA spending bill

By Noelle Straub
Washington, DC (September 25, 2009)- The Senate yesterday approved, 77-21, a $32.1 billion spending bill to fund environmental agencies for fiscal 2010 after deflecting several controversial amendments that would have limited the Obama administration’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. H.R. 2996 would provide $10.2 billion for U.S. EPA, $11.1 billion for the Interior Department and $5.3 billion for the Forest Service.

The Senate measure is $225 million below President Obama’s request and $200 million below the House-approved package. The funding levels offer the agencies a significant boost compared with recent years, providing $4.5 billion above 2009 levels.
A House-Senate conference will now be needed to reconcile the differences between the two measures before a final version is sent to the White House.
Although several Republican senators offered amendments seeking to curb EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, their provisions were blocked from getting votes on the Senate floor under a unanimous consent agreement reached yesterday morning.
Measures that were not brought to the floor for votes include an amendment from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would prohibit EPA from regulating stationary sources of carbon dioxide emissions for one year and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to limit EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions until both China and India signed international agreements requiring similar emission reductions and another that would have prohibited the agency from moving forward on its proposed “endangerment finding” until the agency evaluated the potential effects on employment.
An amendment on President Obama’s use of various policy “czars,” or presidential advisers whose appointments were not subject to Senate confirmation, failed after Democratic leaders objected. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) raised a point of order against an amendment from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), saying legislative measures cannot be included on an appropriations bill, and the amendment was struck down.
Collins’ amendment would have prevented federal funds from paying the expenses of the advisers until two conditions are met. The president would have to certify to Congress that all the advisers will respond to reasonable requests from congressional committees seeking information and each official would have to issue a public written report twice a year describing their office and any rule, regulation, or policy they participated in developing or directed.
Earlier in the week, Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) indicated she was likely to agree to the amendment. But Collins yesterday said the Democratic leadership decided to oppose the measure after the White House raised objections to it.
Collins said she was “deeply disturbed” that the Democrats prevented a straight up-or-down vote on her amendment, which she said would only have affected 18 new czar positions. She said she had offered to sit down with the White House counsel to further narrow its scope to address their concerns but that the White House failed to offer any modifications she could make. The senator said that the Obama administration insisted it did not want any of the officials called to testify before Congress.
Durbin said it made no sense to require the advisers to fill out paperwork every six months “saying they showed up at their desk on time” but that he agreed with the portion stating that the officials should be accountable to Congress. However, he added that the “waters had been muddied” on the issues by Collins’ colleagues, who had found not 18 but 32 advisors, making it too far-reaching.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Interior Appropriations panel, said he expected the issue could be brought to a “thoughtful resolution” with another bill or amendment at a later time. The Senate subsequently voted, 57-41, to table an amendment from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) against one White House adviser in particular. The measure would have barred the use of funds in the spending bill for implementing policies “at the direction” of White House climate and energy adviser Carol Browner. Vitter said his amendment would not prohibit Browner from legitimate duties, such as advising the president and coordinating across agencies, but only from “ordering around” EPA, whose director is confirmed by the Senate. But Feinstein argued that Browner does not direct EPA from behind the scenes. “I don’t understand quite why she’s being picked on,” Feinstein said.
Wildfire costs
The Senate unanimously agreed to include a provision to create a contingency fund to pay for the country’s largest and most expensive wildfires. The measure from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is similar to a bill he introduced, S. 561, to create a fund to be tapped into any time that a fire met certain requirements, including being at least 300 acres in size. Such catastrophic fires make up a very small percentage of the blazes the Forest Service fights but account for most of its costs. The agencies would continue to rely on regularly budgeted money for routine wildfire suppression costs- the 98 percent of fires that can be put out swiftly or managed.
Bingaman’s measure was designed to address the problem of recent years when the Forest Service has run out of firefighting money and has had to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from its other programs to cover wildfire costs, causing major disruptions to its other priorities.
The amendment would not add any new spending to the bill but instead shift money into the new emergency account. Bingaman noted that the House version of his legislation, called the “FLAME Act,” passed that chamber in March by an overwhelming 412-3 vote.
The House-passed Interior spending bill contains a different version of a wildfire fund- one that the Obama administration prefers. The administration has pushed to create a new reserve fund for catastrophic wildfires that, unlike Bingaman’s measure, would be tapped only if federal agencies exhaust regularly budgeted money for wildfires. The fund would include $75 million for Interior agencies and $282 million for the Forest Service for firefighting, for use after the appropriated 10-year average runs out. The money could only be transferred upon a presidential declaration of need.
However, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee report accompanying the House spending bill says that if the FLAME Act is authorized, the committee would work to make the version of the wildfire fund approved by the House “compatible” with the FLAME Act funding procedures.
“Funding wildfire fighting has become almost as difficult as fighting the fires,” Bingaman said in a statement. “Today we took a significant step toward solving many of the recurring problems associated with expenses at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.”
Coburn amendments
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had eight amendments up for consideration on the spending bill. The Senate voted, 79-19, to kill his amendment to divert money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for land acquisition to instead be used by federal agencies to reduce their maintenance backlogs.
Several Coburn amendments were accepted by unanimous agreement. They included measures to require that any report submitted by a federal agency to the House or Senate Appropriations panels be posted on the committees’ Web sites; to prevent money in the bill from being used to impede or restrict activities of the Department of Homeland Security to achieve “operational control” of U.S. international borders; and to require that no private property be included unless the owner makes a written request.
Feinstein had planned to offer a second-degree amendment to Coburn’s measure prohibiting any no-bid contracts and grants, but the two came to an agreement and approved his modified measure by voice vote.
Coburn decided to withdraw two amendments. One would have canceled $1 million directed to the Sewall-Belmont House in Washington, D.C., and instead give the money to the National Park Service for its maintenance backlog. The second would have required the president within 120 days of submitting the 2011 budget request to submit a report describing the annual cost of maintaining all federal land holdings for the previous three years.
Additional amendments
Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-Del.) amendment requiring EPA to study black carbon emissions was agreed to as part of the manager’s amendment. It directs EPA to study the sources and impacts of black carbon and to identify opportunities for research and development and mitigation.
An amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) aimed at speeding the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund Site in Oklahoma passed by voice vote. The provision would allow purchases of “chat”- the gravel-like waste created from lead and zinc mining- to be counted at twice their purchase price and to be eligible to be counted toward meeting the federally required disadvantaged business enterprise set-aside on federally funded projects.
Lawmakers killed a motion from Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) to recommit the bill to committee with instructions, a move he made because he objected to the 16 percent funding increase contained in the bill for environmental agencies. Feinstein’s motion to table Ensign’s motion passed by a margin of 64-34.
The following amendments cleared the Senate by unanimous consent:
Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) proposal encouraging the participation of the Smithsonian Institution in preserving the papers of Martin Luther King Jr.
An amendment from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) allocating $1.5 million for an Indian estate planning assistance program.
Sen. Bob Bennett’s (R-Utah) provision to update information concerning the Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area Map.
Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) amendment providing guidelines for including property in or removing property from the Northern Plains Heritage Area.
A Reid amendment to make funds available for preliminary planning and design of a green building to consolidate multiple EPA facilities in Las Vegas.