WASHINGTON, March 25, 2015 – The Senate’s budget resolution is providing an important chance for senators to test support for a number of issues, and no vote may be more interesting than one expected today, Wednesday, on the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Water Act rule.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is sponsoring an amendment to the resolution that calls for “limiting” the reach of the rule, which defines the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). The resolution won’t become law, which means amendments to the measure are non-binding, but the results can still provide important test votes, even though the amendments must be carefully worded to be in order. The real action on issues such as the WOTUS rule is likely to come later when appropriations bills for agencies such as EPA are debated.
“We expect significant support, and we’re looking for support across the aisle,” Barrasso told reporters Tuesday. The language in the amendment doesn’t go so far as to call for withdrawing the proposed rule or killing it, and that may help attract Democratic support. Barrasso did not comment Tuesday when asked what lesson he would draw from the vote.
The amendment says that enforcement of the Clean Water Act should be “focused on water quality, which may include limiting jurisdiction based on the movement of birds, mammals, or insects through the air or over the land, the movement of water through the ground, or the movement of rainwater or snowmelt over the land, or limiting jurisdiction over puddles, isolated ponds, roadside ditches, irrigation ditches, stormwater systems, wastewater systems, or water delivery, reuse, or reclamation systems.”
Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who is cosponsoring the amendment, told Agri-Pulse the vote could indicate whether there is enough support to kill the rule. Otherwise the only remedy will be to use the appropriations process to block enforcement of the rule for fiscal 2016, which starts Oct. 1.
“We’re either going to deauthorize or defund it this year. We’re going to do one or the other,” said Hoeven, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “If we can deauthorize ‘waters of the U.S.’ then that’s a permanent fix. If we can’t get that done, then I’ll include a provision to defund it, but that’s just a one-year fix.”
Hoeven is hoping for at least 60 votes, but 67 “would be great,” he said. The latter would indicate that a bill attacking the rule could get a veto-proof, two-thirds margin. A 60-vote margin would be necessary to break a Democratic filibuster on a separate WOTUS bill.
Two other amendments, both proposed by Chris Coons, D-Del., call for preserving mandatory spending levels for agricultural conservation programs and increasing funding for improving and maintaining ports.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., meanwhile, has said he will propose amendments attacking the crop insurance program, including the harvest price option (HPO). Flake last month introduced legislation to eliminate premium subsidies for HPO policies.
Meanwhile, House Republican leaders, who have been struggling just to pass their resolution over the grumbling of many conservatives and defense hawks, strictly limited the number of amendments that could be offered, denying the chance for test votes similar to what the Senate allowed.
Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture subcommittee that oversees nutrition programs, proposed an amendment that called for protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from any cuts if Congress goes through the budget reconciliation process later in the year. Republicans, however, blocked his amendment in the Rules Committee.
“Budgets are moral documents and what the Republicans are doing is immoral,” McGovern said Tuesday.” Penalizing working families – and yes, the majority of people on SNAP who can work do work – by taking away food in the guise of fiscal prudence is just wrong. Cutting SNAP while increasing unchecked spending for the Pentagon is hypocritical.”
McGovern’s concerns may be academic. Republicans have so far shown little appetite for pursuing budget reconciliation unless the Supreme Court rules against the federal subsidies provided to people who buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
The House budget resolution only directs the Agriculture Committee to identify $1 billion in cuts over 10 years, or $100 million a year. Even if all of that were taken from SNAP it would represent a small fraction of the program’s cost, estimated at $84 billion for fiscal 2016. The Senate budget resolution has no reconciliation instructions for the chamber’s Agriculture Committee.
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