Environmental Riders on Omnibus Coming Into Focus

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By David Schultz

Nov. 12 — Congressional Democrats appear to be softening their stance toward attaching policy riders to an upcoming omnibus federal spending bill, which could allow Republicans to enact measures that would block some of the Obama administration's key environmental regulations.

Last month, after passage of a budget deal set the stage for negotiations over the must-pass spending bill, Democrats said they would fight against any and all policy riders (209 DEN A-12, 10/29/15).

But now, some Democratic members and staff are qualifying this hard-line position, saying it will be impossible to pass a totally clean spending bill.

When asked by Bloomberg BNA about his party's earlier pledge to block all riders, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said only that Democrats would reject any “poison pill” riders.

This change in tone opens up the possibility that Republicans will be able to attach some riders to the spending bill that target environmental policy issues.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that allocates funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, said the riders he most wants to see attached to the omnibus bill are ones that would block the EPA's waters of the U.S. rule, its recent changes to ozone emission standards and the agency's Clean Power Plan (RIN 2060-AR33), which places tighter restrictions on carbon emissions from power plants.

Hoeven told Bloomberg BNA that he feels confident that Republicans can come to an agreement with Democrats to include the waters of the U.S. measure within the omnibus bill but less confident about the chances of a similar agreement with Democrats on the ozone and carbon emissions riders.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Bloomberg BNA that, regardless of which riders Democrats choose to accept or reject, the rules of the Senate make it impossible for them to block all amendments from the bill.

No Omnibus Before Thanksgiving

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, said she began negotiating over spending levels and riders with her subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), on Nov. 5.

Both chambers of Congress must pass the omnibus bill before Dec. 11, when the continuing resolution currently funding the federal government expires.

Multiple majority and minority Appropriations Committee staffers—from both sides of the Capitol dome—said there is no chance the omnibus bill will be introduced before the upcoming Thanksgiving recess. Instead, they said, appropriators won't finish their behind-the-scenes negotiations over the spending bill until the week of Nov. 30 at the earliest.

That would mean Congress would have, at most, 10 working days to start and finish debating the omnibus bill before sending it to the president's desk.

If the legislators are unable to pass the omnibus bill under this time frame, they would need to pass another short-term continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown.

—With assistance from Anthony Adragna in Washington

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com