WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 – The vote-a-rama that the Senate held on its budget resolution last week underscored how much Republicans will have to depend on the appropriations process to turn back regulations that they don’t like. But the votes showed how much resistance there is to the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The votes on nearly 60 non-binding amendments allowed the parties to set up campaign messages while also testing support on a few key issues. The key takeaways:
The WOTUS rule may be the administration’s most unpopular regulatory proposal right now. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to stop. Republicans don’t have anything close to a veto-proof margin for killing the administration’s proposed rule for re-defining what streams, ditches and ponds qualify as “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. An amendment that called for limiting the reach of the law was approved 59-40. No Republicans crossed the aisle to oppose it -- as several GOP senators did on other environmental issues -- and five Democrats voted for it.
The fact that Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri both voted for the amendment shows what a potent issue this is. Texas Republican Ted Cruz would have added the 60th vote if he hadn’t been absent.
Sixty votes would overcome a Democratic filibuster on a standalone WOTUS bill, but that wouldn’t get Republicans anything other than a campaign issue, given that President Obama would likely veto the legislation. It would take a two-thirds margin, or 67 votes, to override a veto. That means farm groups who want to stop the rule will have to depend on Congress doing so as a policy rider to a larger appropriations bill, which presumably would be harder for Obama to justify vetoing.
However, a policy rider is only a temporary fix, since it would only stop the administration from enforcing the rule for fiscal 2016.
Obama faces strong resistance to climate action. There were several votes on climate related issues. Most notably, the Senate voted 57-43 in favor of prohibiting the administration from withholding highway funds from states that refuse to submit plans for reducing carbon emissions from electric utilities under the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan. Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, along with energy-state senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, crossed party lines to support the amendment.
(EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at a Politico event Monday that her agency doesn’t have the authority to withhold highway funding anyway. She also said she expects the plan to be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.)
A separate vote showed that there’s little Republican support for doing anything to address climate change. A Democratic amendment that narrowly failed, 49-50, called for recognizing that “climate change is real and caused by human activity and that Congress needs to take action to cut carbon pollution.” Three Republicans voted for the measure, while Heitkamp and Manchin voted against it.
Democrats can be counted on to defend the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Senators proposed a series of amendments seeking to put their colleagues on record on protections for various species, including the gray wolf and sage grouse. But the sponsors were also under pressure to drop as many of the amendments as possible, so only one ESA measure was voted on: Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton’s amendment called on the Fish and Wildlife Service “to examine the cumulative economic effects” of any new ESA listing on property values, regional employment and revenues of state and local governments.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer of California, made the amendment a referendum on the ESA, calling the measure a backdoor attempt to gut the law. The amendment was approved, 52-42; just two Democrats voted for it, Heitkamp and Manchin, and four other Democrats didn’t vote.
Republicans can probably prevail on appropriations policy riders to block listings on the gray wolf, sage grouse or lesser prairie chicken but there won’t be much margin for error.
Next steps: House and Senate negotiators must agree on a compromise budget resolution, which will then allow leaders to set fiscal 2016 spending limits for the individual appropriations bills, including the Agriculture measure that funds USDA and FDA. With those spending caps in mind, the Appropriations subcommittees in both chambers can begin writing the bills, and the policy riders that will go with them.
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