Senate panel OKs EPA bill to block WOTUS rule, species listings

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, June 16, 2016 - The Senate Appropriations Committee advanced a fiscal 2017 spending bill that would block the Obama administration's “Waters of the United States” rule, curb work on greenhouse gas regulations and bar some endangered species protections. 

The WOTUS provision, which mirrors riders in two House spending bills, seeks to block the Obama administration from enforcing the rule in case court stays are lifted. 

A senior Democrat on the committee, Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, warned that Democrats would probably block the Interior-Environment bill from moving on the Senate floor. Republicans control 54 seats in the Senate, but 60 would be needed to bring it up for debate. The Senate committee approved the bill on a party-line vote, 16-14. 

“I think it's quite likely this bill will never be considered on the floor because of these riders. It's sad because there are many parts of the bill that are very good,” said Durbin. The bill funds the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department.
The committee separately approved a Financial Services bill that includes an amendment to allow private banks and companies to offer credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. That amendment, approved 22-8, was sponsored by John Boozman, R-Ark., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. 

"We've had good intentions behind our isolation policy toward Cuba, but the results have not changed. It's time to try a new approach,” said Boozman. 

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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Interior-Environment Subcommittee, said some of the environmental provisions in the bill that Democrats oppose have bipartisan support while others have been enacted previously.

“This bill strikes a critical balance -- directing federal resources where they are needed, while blocking excessive regulations that are causing harm and burying us in red tape,” Murkowski said.

But the subcommittee's ranking member, Tom Udall of New Mexico, singled out the WOTUS rider for criticism, noting that previous efforts in this Congress to kill or block implementation of the rule had failed. “Many of us are confident the rule will prevail (in the courts) on its merits. We should not be intervening in the judicial process,” he said. 

A similar WOTUS rider was dropped from the fiscal 2016 spending legislation because of strong resistance from the White House. 

The Senate bill, unlike the House version, wouldn't block implementation of the administration's plan for reducing carbon emissions from electric utilities, but it would restrict EPA's funding to continue work on the rule. 

Other provisions in the bill, which Democrats said were “poison pills,” included one that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from further study on whether the lesser prairie chicken should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Another rider would override court rulings that require gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes to remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.

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Udall did manage to get the full committee to increase funding for fighting wildfires. The draft bill would have funded firefighting at the 10-year rolling average cost, or $1.6 billion, but the panel agreed to add $661 million, the level the Interior Department and the Forest said they would need for 2017. 

The bill would cut funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund by $50 million to $400 million for fiscal 2017. The Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, which compensates local governments for revenue they lose because of federal land holdings, would be increased by $28 million in 2017 to $480 million. 

The bill also includes a provision, sought by Western ranchers, that would allow the carryover of grazing fee credits from year to year to pay for improvements on federal lands. 

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