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.
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
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
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,
Among the issues to watch when
negotiators try to break the budget impasse:
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.
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.
Republicans are warning their leaders to back off on environmental
riders and other tough stands.
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
Ken Miller reports from