Democrats gag on bitter budget pills

  WASHINGTON - How strange have things gotten in negotiations over the 1996 budget? Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt unveiled an ambitious 1997 budget last month even though his department doesn't have one for 1996.


"This is surely the most unusual budget year in the history of our nation," " Babbitt said. He accused Republicans of "misuse and distortion of the budget process'" in holding up his department's budget with a long list of policy riders. "The difficulties we are having with Congress are really not about numbers," he said.


For Republicans the strategy is simple - make Clinton and the Democrats so hungry to restore agency budgets that they'll swallow controversial provisions, such as the endangered species listing moratorium, increased logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and a move to shift the new Mojave preserve in California from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management.


But Senate Democrats, confident they can back up a presidential veto of a bill funding federal agencies through the rest of this fiscal year, say their Republican colleagues must give up on controversial policy riders or face voters' wrath this fall.


A letter sent by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and 33 Senate colleagues to the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, urges Democratic budget negotiators to stand firm in demanding the environmental riders be removed from the omnibus budget bill. The 34 senators leave Republicans short of the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.


The stakes remain huge for both sides in the bizarre battle over a budget for a fiscal year that's already half over. Late last month, House and Senate Republicans nearly worked out their differences on a catch-all 1996 budget for several agencies, including Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency.


But they were unable to strike a deal before the Easter recess, which began on April 1, instead sending Clinton a stopgap spending bill that keeps those agencies open through April 24. It was the 12th such "continuing resolution," and for the Department of Interior it meant three more weeks of funding at less than normal levels (HCN, 2/19/96).


Among the issues to watch when negotiators try to break the budget impasse:


* A moratorium on endangered species listings and critical habitat designations that has been in place for a year. Republicans insist it must remain in place until agreement is reached on a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act that includes better protection for the rights of property owners. The law lapsed in 1992 but has been funded on a year-to-year basis.


* Wetlands protection. This rider would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its permitting authority for development in wetlands, giving complete control to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has come out against the GOP proposal, saying it needs EPA's expertise. The issue has huge implications for the proposed New World Mine project outside Yellowstone National Park, since most people believe EPA would take a harder look at the environmental implications of the proposed mine's waste tailings pond.


* The timber salvage rider, signed by Clinton last year over strong objections from the environmental community. The Senate narrowly defeated a bid by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to include a repeal of the rider in the omnibus bill. Environmentalists still hope that the White House will insist that a repeal be part of any final budget bill.


* Grazing reforms. This rider suspends for three months Babbitt's new grazing reforms for public lands to give Republicans time to pass their own grazing package. A stand-alone bill introduced by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., which includes slight increases in grazing fees but lacks many of Babbitt's reforms on such things as water rights, narrowly passed the Senate in March. With a veto threat in the wings, it faces an uncertain future.


Moderate Republicans are warning their leaders to back off on environmental riders and other tough stands.


"The Republican party is reassessing its environmental stance," GOP environmental leader Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., told a meeting of the U.S. Catholic Conference recently. "The American public is not seeking the wholesale rollback of environmental law, but intelligent targeted reform to make that law work better."


Congressional negotiators were to resume work on the omnibus appropriations bill April 15.





* Ken Miller





Ken Miller reports from Washington, D.C.