Shutdown looms as White House objects to omnibus despite lack of big-ticket riders

Source: Elana Schor • E&E  • Posted: Thursday, December 15, 2011

Washington is gearing up today for yet another white-knuckle ride toward a potential government shutdown after the White House warned that the 2012 spending deal could “undercut environmental protections” and instead urged passage of a stopgap plan to keep agencies open past tomorrow’s expiration of federal funds.

The White House’s call for a continuing resolution (CR) came as House Republicans mulled whether to unilaterally vote on an omnibus appropriations package for fiscal 2012 — a bill viewed as bipartisan and ironed out barely 72 hours ago — to force Senate Democrats’ hand on a stalled payroll tax measure.

The specific energy and environmental policy limits in that omnibus bill were revealed early this morning when House Republicans filed a stand-alone version of it, with a vote in that chamber anticipated before the week’s end. The 2012 spending deal contains language blocking one politically volatile White House priority — Energy Department light bulb efficiency standards set to take effect next month, which are opposed by conservatives — but contains few if any of the U.S. EPA policy riders that the House GOP has pushed for during its year in power.

Given the absence of most big-ticket EPA restrictions, last night’s White House statement of “significant concerns” with environmental riders “that have been reported to be” in the legislation mark a stark contrast with what the senior House Democratic appropriator for the agency has described all week long as a fair deal for his party.

That appropriator, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, said late yesterday that he would vote for a stand-alone version of the omnibus “in a New York minute,” adding that the bill “should be under the appropriations committees’ control” rather than wedded to the fate of a payroll tax extension plan hotly sought by the president and congressional Democrats.

Yet the two bills remained joined at the hip last night as Senate leaders tussled over the timing for a vote on a House-passed payroll tax bill that forces a speedy ruling on the Keystone XL oil pipeline and rolls back EPA emissions rules for industrial boilers (E&E Daily, Dec. 14).

Republicans in both chambers accuse the White House and Senate Democrats of slow-walking the omnibus to prod them into accepting a payroll tax and unemployment insurance (UI) extension without those environmental policy add-ons.

The GOP subpanel chairman in charge of EPA and Interior Department budgeting, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, predicted before the White House weighed in yesterday that “the endgame” could see the Senate replacing the text of the House bill with the omnibus and its own version of the payroll tax-UI proposal.

“If that happens,” Simpson said, “they’d better have a deal cut out on the tax bill.”

Yet the president’s call for a CR puts fresh pressure on Democrats to stand with the White House and risks ratcheting up partisan tensions with just 48 hours left until government funding expires. In addition to the environmental riders, the White House objected to provisions it said would “undermine Wall Street reforms, enact extreme social and ideological riders … and threaten the foreign policy prerogatives of the President.”

The top Senate Republican for EPA and Interior appropriations, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, lamented yesterday that a 2012 spending blueprint hashed out during delicate bipartisan talks could be “reopened.”

“I just don’t know what they may do with it,” she said of the omnibus deal, “and as the ranking member that worked real hard on a lot of these issues, you’d like to think that once we were done, we were done.”

House Republicans spent much of their hourlong conference meeting yesterday committing that “we are going to pass this omnibus,” as Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) put it, and they could do so tomorrow by filing it as a separate bill without the signatures of Democratic negotiators.

That move, however, would do little to quiet the Republican furor over the Obama administration’s delay in approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a major bugaboo for environmentalists who oppose further development of the emissions-intensive fuel that it would carry from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Terry, the lead sponsor of two pro-Keystone XL bills in two months, said that he continues to marshal Senate support for fast-tracking the $7 billion project this year: “I haven’t stopped the fight yet.”

But one of the labor unions whose support for the pipeline gave Terry’s party a potent tool to court Democrats clarified yesterday that it does not support the House payroll tax bill, despite the provision speeding approval of Keystone XL. The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) slammed the GOP plan for extending a freeze on federal workers’ pay and limiting the extent of future UI benefits.

“While addressing both of these issues [UI and the pipeline] would help ease the burden of unemployment, they should be resolved based on their individual merit,” LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement.

Inside the omnibus

The massive 2012 spending plan addresses an array of high-profile environmental and energy issues, from the DOE loan guarantee program under fire for months after the bankruptcy of solar firm Solyndra to Interior’s grazing and wildfire control activities.

The energy and water section of the omnibus blocks the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from reprogramming funds to work around congressional directives and stops the NRC chairman from ending “any program, project, or activity” without a majority vote among his fellow commissioners. Those provisions could be used to keep alive the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository despite the Obama administration’s efforts to shut it down.

In addition, language in the EPA section of the bill would prohibit the agency from regulating stormwater pollution discharged from construction sites, an effort already punted for the second time in two years (Greenwire, Aug. 19). Another provision in the omnibus would limit the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to the annual release of no more than 40 toxicological profiles for use in hazardous waste cleanups.

Yet, GOP-backed riders affecting EPA greenhouse gas emissions limits, its boiler rule and its crackdown on pollution generated by mountaintop-removal mining were all absent from the final omnibus — underscoring Moran’s assessment that the deal would amount to a net positive for Democrats on environmental issues.