House Warms Up for Debt Vote with Interior-Environment Bill

The appropriations bill may be only a fraction of debt ceiling, but it's just as contentious.

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Jessica Rettig covers energy issues for U.S. News.

As its leaders scramble around House Speaker John Boehner's debt ceiling proposal, it seems fitting that the House has decided to tackle legislation that's just as, if not more, partisan in the meantime: the Interior-Environment appropriations bill.

The bill, which would fund the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other related agencies in fiscal year 2012, simply doesn't stand a chance outside the Republican-led House. For now, then, the debate is essentially a legislative time killer until Boehner's debt plan hits the floor Wednesday. Under open rules, which allow for any number of amendments, it gives Republicans and Democrats a public forum to argue about anything and everything they might want, or not want, within the contentious realm of energy, natural resources, and the environment.

Not quite the ideal table setter for a compromise. [Read about how the EPA is under attack from the GOP.]

For Republicans, this bill—set amidst the backdrop of a much bigger debate on spending levels—is a great opportunity to slash funding for big government, and particularly for their favorite regulatory scapegoat, the EPA. Amendments aside, the bill as introduced on the floor includes $27.5 billion in federal spending, which amounts to a $2.1 billion cut from last year and a full $3.8 billion below President Obama's budget request. On funding related to climate change, there was a 22 percent reduction from last year, and the EPA alone took around a $1.5 billion spending cut. "Frankly, many of the cuts in this bill are just plain common-sense—particularly when it comes to the Environmental Protection Agency," argued House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers on the floor Monday, according to his official statement. "The reductions and provisions in this bill were made with very good reason—to rein in unparalleled, out-of-control spending and job-killing over-regulation." [See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

But with more than a few dozen riders, and what could be more than a hundred amendments coming from either side of the aisle, this legislation also seems to be a magnet for Congress members' gripes and interests. Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said Monday that it's "not so much a spending bill as a wish list for special interests." The bill includes provisions on everything from the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act to greenhouse gas regulation to Appalachian mining permits, so Moran doesn't seem to be too far off the mark. [Read more about energy policy and climate change.]

Compared to the trillion dollar debt ceiling debate, the $1 billion to $2 billion cuts in this bill seem like small change, but, like many of the other appropriations bills passed in the House this year, this one may be just as difficult to reconcile with the Democrat-led Senate when the time for the fiscal year 2012 budget fight arrives.

Also on the House floor Tuesday is a bill that would force the State Department to speed up its permitting process on the Keystone XL project, a proposed oil pipeline that would stretch from Canada through the center of the country to refineries in the South. Environmentalists are just as up in arms about this legislation as they are about the spending bill.

It looks like the appropriations bill—amendments, riders, and all—will pass the House. Jennifer Hing, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, says they expect to finish the bill later this week or early next week and move to final passage. Though depending on the timing of the debt ceiling votes, the Interior-Environment bill could be punted until after recess, when the appropriations battles for next year really get fired up.

  • Read about how the EPA is under attack from the GOP.
  • Read more about energy policy and climate change.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.