Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Environmental Riders Hobbling Efforts to Finish First Minibus

August 3, 2018 Nancy Ognanovich
  • Disputes remain over Yucca Mountain, Obama policies
  • Leaders may advance package without Energy and Water bill

Disputes over environment-related policy riders in a House Energy and Water spending bill may lead to that measure being dropped from the first package of spending bills that GOP leaders are determined to complete in September, lawmakers and aides said.

House Republican pressure to include funding for a nuclear waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and roll back or block Obama-era programs in their version of the Energy and Water legislation is meeting strong Democratic opposition and is slowing work on reaching a final agreement on the three-bill minibus (H.R. 5895) both chambers passed in July and sent to conference.

Republican leaders may decide to drop the Energy and Water spending bill from the minibus if they can’t resolve the dispute over riders and it threatens overall progress on finalizing the package, according to GOP lawmakers and aides familiar with the process.

The developments hint at the first cracks in Republican leaders’ strategy to get three minibus packages covering nine of the 12 annual spending bills finished by the time the federal government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Besides the first minibus now in conference, the Senate passed a second package (H.R. 6147) containing the Interior-Environment, Financial Services, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture-FDA bills. The Senate may consider a package the week of Aug. 13 that combines the Defense and Labor, Health, and Human Services bills.

Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Alexander(R-Tenn.) said delays in reaching agreement on his portion of the minibus that also includes the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Legislative Branch spending bills. But he said he still hopes to resolve the disputes soon.

Alexander said he and Energy and Water ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) failed during a recent meeting with House Energy and Water Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and ranking member Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) to reconcile their competing bills.

Senate Milcon-VA Subcommittee Chairman John Boozman (R-Ark.) said negotiators still are working to find more money to fund the VA Mission Act dealing with veterans’ health care (Public Law 115-182) in the Milcon-VA bill. But he said most other issues have been resolved.

“Actually, there are a lot more problems with the Energy and Water bill and that’s what’s holding that minibus up,” Boozman said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby(R-Ala.) said the bipartisan plan he’s been pushing with ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) calls for keeping the spending bills free of such riders in order to expedite their progress.

“We can’t load these bills up if we want to move them,” Shelby said. Shelby said he hoped that the Energy and Water measure won’t be dropped from the three-bill package.

The House Energy and Water spending bill included funding for Yucca but the Senate, as in previous years, omitted the funds. The House also wants provisions to repeal the Obama administration’s Waters of the U.S. rulemaking, block the National Ocean Policy, and withhold funds for the operations of the Federal Columbia River Power System. All are opposed by Democrats.

`Get Over It’

Inclusion of the Yucca funding could create political headaches for Republicans, particularly Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) who faces a difficult re-election battle this fall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose party currently has only a one-seat advantage, is pushing a legislative strategy aimed at keeping control of the chamber in the midterm election.

Appropriator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Senate Republicans are currently sold on keeping controversy out of the spending bills and House Republicans should follow suit if they want to have a shot at getting the measures done this fall.

“This is the way these bills are supposed to be done,” Blunt said. “They’re just going to have to get over it.”

While senators have touted their efforts to avoid inserting contentious policy matters into appropriations bills, House Republicans expect their Senate counterparts to budge at least a little, Simpson said in an interview last week.

“They’re famously saying they have no riders in their bill, but they do,” Simpson said. “It’s just the ones that the Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans have agreed on. But they’re still riders.”

Money for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is a significant sticking point, Simpson said.

Funding for an unfinished South Carolina mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility has also sparked a debate, Simpson said. The House bill would provide $335 million to continue construction on the facility, which would convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for commercial reactors. The Senate bill calls for the termination of the project, providing $220 million in closeout costs. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5515), which Congress sent to the president yesterday, includes a measure that would block any action to close the facility.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) opposed the Senate spending bill’s language and has criticized a Department of Energy plan to close the facility in his home state.

Stopgap Vehicle

Keeping the first minibus free of controversy is particularly important as it is seen as a likely vehicle for a must-pass continuing resolution that McConnell and Ryan plan to advance in September to keep the government operating when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, aides said.

A CR attached to a popular veterans’ funding bill would be hard to vote against and likely would pass muster with the White House, where President Donald Trump has issued several shutdown threats, they said. The Energy and Water bill could be attached to a different package, they said, or wait with three others for action later in the fall.

But former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who served on the House Appropriations Committee, said there also is a good chance House Republicans will simply back away from the riders.

“It’s very frustrating to House members but in the Senate the minority is very empowered,” said Kingston, now with Squire Patton Boggs. “I think the legislative branch is very adverse to the divisive politics of a shutdown.”

With assistance from Jack Fitzpatrick

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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