Senate refers interior, environment spending bill to Democrats' chagrin

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 18, 2015 - Senate Republicans advanced a fiscal 2016 spending bill for the EPA and Interior Department including provisions that block some key environmental regulations and endangered species listings.

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Over the opposition of Democrats, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill along party lines (14-16) after adding a provision that would bar the Fish and Wildlife Service from enforcing its listing of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act.

The bill already included policy riders that would block the Obama administration from lowering its ozone standard or from implementing rules that would re-define the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction and reduce carbon emissions from electric utilities.

Other existing riders would ban the Interior Department from listing the greater sage-grouse as an endangered or threatened species and would delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lake states, preventing judicial review.

An amendment proposed by Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to block ESA protection for the lesser prairie chicken was adopted in committee mark up Thursday. The House version of the bill - which is expected to be on the House floor next week - includes all but the lesser prairie chicken provision.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the riders “serve as a back-door attempt” to weaken environmental laws and are a “special interest giveaway to polluters” that are certain to draw a presidential veto.

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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., dismissed the veto threat saying, “if we stopped work every time the president said he'd veto a bill, we would meet one day a month (and) we would not be doing our jobs.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is a member of the committee, accused Democrats of trying to make the Senate “look bad. The only way to stop this is for you to insist that we start functioning again.”

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., fired back. “Don't say that we (the Democrats) started this fight,” she said, “I think the way that we finish it is with what is traditional in the Senate: civility (and) coming together sooner rather than later.”

Following opening statements, Udall proposed several amendments to strike all the bill's policy riders and to increase appropriations to many of the programs and agencies funded by the bill. All of Udall's amendments are dismissed following party line votes. And as approved, the bill provides $30.01 billion for public lands development and environmental programs - more than $2 billion below Obama's request.

Another Democrat, Sen. John Tester from Montana, proposed upping the 2016 allotment for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) from $292 million provided in the original bill to the $400 million Obama requested.

LWCF has traditionally garnered bipartisan support over the 50 years it's been in existence, but has only twice been funded to its annual limit of $900 million. Notably, the program is funded by a percentage of government fees collected from offshore oil drilling operations, not by taxpayers.

Republicans on the committee immediately pushed back, claiming that a budget increase for LWCF would mean breaking the Senate's commitment to staying within the Budget Cap Act's limit.

“The BCA does not work. We all know it… And heck, we're the ones running the ship here, we can fix it,” Tester pleaded. Predictably, the Republicans voted against his suggestion.

The Republicans did however vote in favor of their party's Sen. Susan Collins from Maine's amendment to raise funding for the LWCF by $13.87 million, restoring LWCF's funding level to fiscal 2015 levels using offsets.

But such a nod to conservation won't be enough to placate public lands stakeholders, much less the Democrats.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said in a release that this bill “sells sportsmen short” and “its funding levels and policy provisions have made it unnecessarily controversial,” so much so that “it's going nowhere and everybody knows it.”

“A bipartisan budget deal is the only way Congress is going to be able to make investments in conservation that American sportsmen deserve,” Fosburgh added.

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