Negotiators aim to settle policy fights, post omnibus tonight

George Cahlink and Geof Koss, E&E News reporters

Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Congressional leaders hope to have massive omnibus spending legislation on the House floor by Thursday, assuming they can resolve a few dozen outstanding policy fights.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said this morning he's "hoping" to file the $1.3 trillion spending bill late tonight, paving the way for the House Rules Committee to consider the bill tomorrow and then floor action Thursday.

He said he does not expect to need to pass an interim stopgap spending bill to avert a federal shutdown when current funding runs out Friday.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, said 20 to 30 policy riders are still being hammered out by leaders in both chambers. He said funding fights were largely resolved earlier this year when Congress passed a budget that boosted spending for fiscal 2018 and 2019 by a combined $200 billion.

Another senior appropriator, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), said the outstanding issues "remain the same" as those that held up the release of the omnibus last night, including funding for the $900 million Gateway rail and transit project, opposed by the White House, and a push for $1.6 billion in border wall funding.

Environmental and energy industry groups continue to watch several riders, including proposals to block the Waters of the U.S. rule and ozone attainment goals, wildfire funding and forest management reforms, and a bid to begin work on raising the Shasta Dam in Northern California.

A coalition of environmental scientists, led by the John Muir Project, sent a letter to congressional leaders yesterday warning about a proposed "fix" for wildfire funding, which would permanently allocate dollars for a range of prevention programs and end ad hoc borrowing from Forest Service accounts to cover fighting the natural disasters. They warn Republicans are coupling the fix with other environmental rollbacks, favoring loggers, that would ultimately lead to more fire losses.

"Since more losses in our communities, more degradation of our forest ecosystems through logging, and more taxpayer dollars spent is certainly not what anyone who supports this legislation as a 'fix' is hoping to achieve, we encourage you to oppose inclusion of these policies," the group said in a lengthy letter that also laid out its proposal for reforms.

Several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, wrote congressional leaders yesterday, raising concern about a provision that would exempt small, remote incinerators from the Clean Air Act. They say the provision is being championed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, and would benefit incinerators in her state.

The letter warns attaching the incinerator rider would "set us on a dangerous path towards the piecemeal dismantling of clean air protections that are meant to provide consistent protection to all Americans."

Whatever deal emerges, it will need at least some bipartisan support to get through the House and Senate.

House conservatives, led by the three dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, are likely to oppose it over spending levels. If they hold together and with the GOP holding a 23-seat majority, Democratic support would be needed to move the bill.

The tight margins in both the House and the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to move the bill, likely guarantee many of the most contentious environmental riders will be knocked out. Last year, leaders stripped about 160 riders from the omnibus in order to win bipartisan backing.

Beyond the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could begin taking procedural steps today to make sure the bill can pass by Friday.

Without those actions, any single senator could potentially hold up action on the bill into the weekend.

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