By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 – Late into Friday night, the House interspersed rapid-fire batch voting with hours of often contentious debate on budget bill amendments ranging from Chesapeake Bay pollution controls and mountain top removal to blocking payments to the United Nations and blocking healthcare law funding.

With most voting breaking along party lines, Republicans generally championed the need to cut back the size of the federal government in order to shift more spending and more control back into private hands. In contrast, Democrats charged that Republicans were ignoring pubic health issues, ignoring the need to reduce federal spending, and ignoring the need to create jobs by voting to defund the healthcare law and pursue other objectives of private industry.

Republicans charged that “bleeding heart liberals” were ignoring the urgent need to cut federal spending sharply. In response, Democrats offered amendments specifically designed to reduce spending – such as an amendment from Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., designed to generate $58 billion from new offshore oil drilling lease rules (defeated in a largely party-line 174-251 vote); and one from Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Europe to save $240 million and free up troops for duty elsewhere (defeated 74 to 351.)

Particularly in amendments directly affecting agriculture, party lines broke. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., offered amendment 323 to bar funds to pay salaries of USDA personnel providing commodity program benefits “to a person or legal entity in excess of $250,000.” In the 185-241 vote to reject the amendment, 51 Republicans joined 134 Democrats in favor, while 54 Democrats joined 187 Republicans in opposing this limit on farm program payments.

But party line divisions were much firmer in the case of amendments which affected not just agriculture but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For example, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., proposed amendment 467 to block funding “to develop, promulgate, evaluate, implement, provide oversight to, or backstop total maximum daily loads or watershed implementation plans for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” This amendment passed in a 230 to 195 vote, with only eight Democrats joining 222 Republicans in favor while only 15 Republicans joined the 180 Democrats opposed to this attempt to restrict new EPA rules.

In the debate on the Goodlatte amendment, Rep. James Moran, D-Va., pointed to a possible unintended consequence. He reported that he's been told by USDA that this amendment would not only block EPA from regulating discharges into Chesapeake Bay – it would also block USDA from making conservation program payments to farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Moran said that while Goodlatte may have intended to limit the amendment to cover only EPA payments, the amendment itself includes no such limit.

After 10 PM, with the prospect of more voting at midnight and another batch of votes at 2 AM to deal with the Democrats' three remaining amendments and the Republicans' 50 remaining amendments, the House agreed to cut debate time to just six minutes per amendment rather than the previous 10 minutes.

So, with an end finally in sight, a visibly and understandly tired House settled back to listen to Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., defend his amendment 377 to prohibit using federal funds “for the construction of an ethanol blender pump or an ethanol storage facility.” Flake insisted “Taxpayers have subsidized ethanol for far too long . . . It's been a boondoggle for 30 years. We've got to end it.”

Opposing Flake's ethanol amendment and in this case standing firmly with the Obama administration, Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, charged Flake's amendment was “yet another attack on our nation's progress to achieve energy independence.”

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