Senate votes down biofuels, parks amendments; CR nears passage

Source: Nick Juliano, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Senate yesterday voted to maintain funding for a military biofuels program and rejected a measure to shift funds within the National Park Service budget as the chamber dispensed with a series of amendments before turning to final passage of a six-month spending bill.

After a week of wrangling over the bill, senators this afternoon considered nine amendments before taking a final vote on their version of a continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year. The CR passed 73-26.

Passage of the Senate CR returns the bill to the House, which passed a similar spending bill earlier this month. The House is expected to pass the Senate bill before the end of the week, averting the threat of a government shutdown when the current CR expires March 27.

Among the amendments considered today was one from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to strip funding from a Navy biofuels program and another from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to shift funds within the National Park Service budget with the goal of resuming White House tours and ensuring that national parks open on time this summer. Coburn’s amendment also would have cut $2 million from the NPS account. Neither amendment received the necessary 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles.

Passage of the spending bill clears the way for the Senate to begin debate over its budget resolution, which is expected to last at least through the rest of the week and include votes on controversial amendments.

Military biofuels

By a 40-59 vote, the Senate rejected Toomey’s amendment, which would have stripped the Navy’s funding for an interagency program intended to spur the commercial-scale development of biofuels. It would have transferred $60 million from the program to the military’s broad Operations and Maintenance account, which covers everything from jet fuel to food for troops.

The amendment reopened a long-running fight over the military’s efforts to develop alternative fuels that also was a key piece of last year’s debate over a defense authorization bill, when a similar amendment was voted down (E&ENews PM, Nov. 29, 2012).

The vote, however, was an opportunity for opponents to cast the military’s energy programs as taking funding away from what they see as more vital defense needs. Debate over the Navy’s biofuels program appears to be following in the footsteps of another controversial military energy issue — a 2007 ban preventing federal agencies from purchasing fuels with a higher greenhouse gas footprint than traditional petroleum — which Republicans regularly seek to overturn through defense budget and policy measures.

Supporters of the biofuels program today hailed the vote results.

“Today’s vote is a victory for our military’s long-term energy security, helping ensure that we develop technology to diversify the fuels that power our military’s vehicles, ships, and aircraft,” Truman Project Executive Director and Operation Free spokesman Mike Breen said in a statement. “[The Defense Department’s] clean energy investments are about strengthening our economic and national security.”

Parks funding

Coburn’s amendment failed 44-54. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) split from his party to vote for the measure, along with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats. Republican senators who voted against it were Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa).

The measure would have cut $8.1 million from the NPS National Heritage Partnership Program, which provides NPS staff to heritage sites across the country, and transferred $6 million to the general parks maintenance account. A Coburn spokesman says the discrepancy between the two numbers results from an “arcane scoring issue” dealing with the rate at which money is spent between the two accounts.

Coburn said the transfer was intended to allow NPS to maintain full service for visitors to marquee sites like Yellowstone National Park and the White House. Republicans have spent weeks criticizing the Obama administration because White House tours have been canceled as a consequence of the across-the-board “sequestration” spending cuts that took effect this month.

Parks advocates opposed the amendment, arguing it forced unacceptable trade-offs.

“You’re basically stealing from one community and giving to another, but in total it’s not advancing the park service mission,” said Kristen Brengel, director of legislative and government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Budget battle looming

With the CR off its plate, the Senate is turning to debate its budget resolution, with a series of amendment votes expected later this week or over the weekend targeting a variety of controversial policies, including the Keystone XL pipeline, U.S. EPA climate change rules and oil drilling on public lands.

The budget itself is nonbinding, meaning the amendments would have no direct policy consequence but offer an opportunity to force vulnerable members to take votes that could become political fodder in next year’s elections.

Already Senate Republicans are looking to score political points off the Democrats’ budget proposal. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm, today released state-by-state breakdowns of the job losses and tax increases it argues the budget would bring.

The committee is specifically targeting more than a dozen Democrats who will be on the ballot in the 2014 midterms, including Baucus and Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Warner (Va.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Al Franken (Minn.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.).