Monday, March 14, 2011

Three-Week Stopgap Measure Likely, but Long-Term Budget in Doubt

March 14, 2011

Three-Week Stopgap Measure Likely, but Long-Term Budget in Doubt

Even as Congress moves toward expected approval this week of a new stopgap government funding bill, the political stars have yet to align for a long-term deal on the fiscal future of federal energy and environmental programs.
The three-week continuing resolution (CR) unveiled by House Republicans on Friday would slice $6 billion in federal spending, largely by pursuing Democratic-backed program cuts and eliminating earmarks. But even Senate Democrats' acceptance of a second stopgap CR in two weeks, which Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) billed yesterday as "a signal of good faith," appears unlikely to be a game-changer given how strongly both parties are dug in to their respective positions.
"Let's resolve the budget for the rest of the year," Durbin told CNN yesterday, invoking national alarm over high gas prices and their impact on the stalled economy as an impetus to "move on and move forward" past the impasse over the fiscal year that ends in October.
The dual failure last week of two competing long-term CRs in the Senate -- the sweeping package of cuts House Republicans passed on Feb. 19 and a Democratic plan that excised about $6 billion from the budget -- was aimed at sparking renewed attempts at compromise (E&ENews PM, March 9). Yet it only led to more discord, with Senate Democrats emphasizing the lack of consensus and House GOP leaders reveling in the fact that their CR won two more votes than the majority party's proposal.
Meanwhile, the planning challenges of operating under a second stopgap CR leaves the stakes as high as ever for U.S. EPA, the Energy Department, the Interior Department and other federal environmental agencies. The senior Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Interior and EPA funding, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, offered his sympathies Friday to the federal workers who will have to manage hiring and spending under still more uncertainty.
The short-term budget process makes agencies' work "extremely difficult," Moran said in an interview. "If I were a program manager, I don't know how I would cope with the situation."
At EPA, whose budget the House's long-term CR would slash by $3 billion, concerns remain high over the presence in that bill of multiple riders restricting agency regulations. But Senate Democrats insisting on a "clean CR" without policy riders won an unexpected ally yesterday in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), a former White House budget chief often mentioned as a potential top-tier presidential candidate for 2012.
Daniels told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he considered it "better practice for lawmakers "to try to concentrate on making ends meet, which Washington obviously has failed to do for a long time, and have other policy debates in other places."
"[T]o see them arguing over nickels and dimes like this," Daniels said of Congress and the Obama administration, "from the vantage point of people who are making big changes, to make ends meet and stay out ... it's almost comic."
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House appropriations subpanel on EPA, told E&E Daily earlier this month that the "majority" of riders could be taken off the table should Democrats move their spending-cut targets closer to the GOP's level of $60 billion over seven months (E&ENews PM, March 2).
Should the new three-week CR pass easily this week, keeping the government funded until April 8, about one-sixth of that $60 billion already would be sliced from agencies' tillers for fiscal 2011. Even so, Democrats showed no signs of backing down from their insistence on preserving administration priorities such as scientific research and development.
And the devastating earthquake and tsunami that left Japan reeling prompted several Democrats to warn against the GOP CR's proposed funding cuts for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association weather monitoring.
"Congress must heed this cruel wakeup call and stop proposed cuts to essential NOAA prediction programs that would endanger lives," Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said in a Friday statement.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) drew a line in the sand Friday by saying this week's 21-day CR would be the last stopgap spending plan he endorses.
"You have the majority," Hoyer told House GOP leaders. "And with the majority, you have the responsibility to see if we can move this country forward."
But House Republicans were equally insistent that Democrats fulfill their governing responsibilities by coming to the table to discuss cuts beyond those that fell short in the Senate.
"Though there are visible divisions in the Democrat party, we hope that our friends on the other side of the aisle will work with the President and join us on a measure to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year that contains serious spending cuts and makes Washington begin to live within its means," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement.
In an interview Friday, Simpson said his conference's preference would be a long-term CR but acknowledged that "whether that will happen or not, who knows."
"We've put our marker out there and we need the Senate to pass something so we can go work with them," Simpson said.
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.

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Continuing resolutions may become a way of life

March 14, 2011 - 7:28am

Erik Wasson, staff writer, The Hill
Click below to hear the interview
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By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

There are a few more days left in the current Continuing Resolution. The House and Senate have to come to some compromise between now and midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
No worries, said Erik Wasson, staff writer for The Hill newspaper. "I think we can breathe easier, probably until April 8th."
The proposed three week CR cuts $6 billion and has been "pre-negotiated with Senate Democrats," Wasson told Federal News Radio. "In fact Harry Reid came out right away and endorsed it, so I think most people feel it will pass."

But one interesting thing that's happened is that conservatives on the far right are coming out against this bill. On Friday, the Family Research Council/Club for Growth came out and said that they would 'key vote' this bill, in other words any congressman who voted for it would get a negative mark in their scorecard. They said that they want to see the congress pass the 6 month, $61 billion dollars in cuts that the House passed in February. That bill contained riders that would de-fund Planned Parenthood over abortion, for example. Already one freshman from Kansas has come out and said he'll vote against it, but my sources are telling me that because the defections are so small, leadership will be able to get this bill through on Tuesday.
Wasson said the prospects of a veto, especially for this CR, are few.
"Most of the things that have been identified in these short term bills are already either in Obama's 2012 budget or in the Senate alternative CR, so they're things that pretty much everybody agrees are wasteful spending. So if the President were to veto one of these short term measures, he'd basically be shutting down the government for things that everybody agrees are wasteful. So if it continues like this, I think it would be very hard for the Democrats to block, or for President Obama to veto a short term, but if the Planned Parenthood issue, for example, gets in there, the whole nature of the debate could change, some people are warning."
The downside, as Wasson noted, is with CRs passing, the chances of funding the government through September seem to be waning.
"The stalemate on the longer term spending bill seems to be persisting. Vice President Biden was tapped as being the Administration's negotiator. He held one really unproductive meeting with all sides and then he went off to Russia and Moldova. Of course the Administration said he was in constant contact, making phone calls, but it really kind of sent this vibe out there that the Administration wasn't that serious about taking the lead, and then we saw people like Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) of West Virginia go on the Senate floor and actually denounce the President for failing to lead, which was, to many people, surprising for a freshman senator to do."
Federal News Radio has been telling you how frustrated federal managers are trying to figure out how to manage under a series of continuing resolutions. The proposed, longer, three week CR isn't Congress's boosting morale. Wasson explained the House is scheduled to take a week's recess starting next week. "That's why, instead of doing a two week bill, they did a three week one."
When Congress returns, Wasson told the Federal Drive, "there are other things on the horizon that are pretty scary. One is the debt ceiling limit which the Treasury Department says will be reached between April and May and yesterday Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said Senate Republicans will not allow a raising of that limit to go forward unless something, quote, credible is done on the debt. He didn't really specify what that is. Basically, if the debt ceiling isn't raised, the Treasury Department's warning that it risks a default on U.S. Treasury bonds."
And as for the FY 2012 budget, Wasson said to keep an eye on Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman. "One way for it to play out is for each party to produce a very partisan budget resolution and then if that happens, probably there won't be a budget this year and then that could lead to another appropriations situation like we have this year with continuing resolutions. I think Conrad is hoping that this gang of six Senators, of which he is a member, will produce sort of a comprehensive plan and perhaps that could be melded with a budget resolution, but it's really, I think, too early to say at this point."
While the prospect of no budget two years in a row is enough to send most federal employees reeling, Wasson offered one tiny glimmer of light.
"I think for your listeners, one of the most important hearing in the past week was this...House Oversight Committee hearing where Chairman Issa talked about making a quote-unquote real pay freeze. Republicans are unhappy with the Obama two year pay freeze that was enacted in December, they say, because it doesn't include step increases within GS grades and they are looking to produce a bill within a matter of weeks, I don't know how far it can go, that would also freeze step increases."

GOP plan would cut tsunami warning center budget

March 11, 2011 - 5:30pm

Associated Press
A spending plan approved by the House would slash funding for a tsunami warning center that issued an alarm after the devastating earthquake in Japan.
The plan approved by the GOP-controlled House last month would trigger deep cuts for the National Weather Service, including the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.
The tsunami warning program has a base budget of $28 million with an additional $12 million that will run out in fiscal year 2012, said Laura Furgione, NWS deputy assistant administrator in a phone call today with reporters.
"We do the best with what we have, and I think today it showed we were able to successfully get the information out to everybody who needed it," Furgione said.
A union representing workers at the tsunami center said the proposed cuts could result in furloughs and rolling closures of NWS offices.
Barry Hirshorn, Pacific region chairman of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said the GOP bill would affect the center's ability to issue warnings similar to those issued after Friday's earthquake in Japan.
Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii called the GOP cuts reckless and even dangerous.
WFED's Jolie Lee contributed to this story.

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