House Democrats kick off reconciliation process with $30 billion Interior bill

By: - September 4, 2021 12:05 pm
President Manchin at work

The short-term funding measure is needed because Congress is unlikely to finish its work passing full-year spending bills before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. (Photo by Kyle Mills on Unsplash)

The House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday inched toward approval of a $30 billion bill to fund climate, tribal and environmental programs.

Thursday’s meeting marked the first time a congressional committee considered any piece of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan meant to fundamentally change U.S. health, climate, education and tax policy. Democrats plan to move that bill in tandem with the narrower $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed last month.

“Today we have a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance a bold, ambitious investment in the people of the United States,” Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said.

After debating and voting on dozens of amendments, mostly from Republicans, over nearly 11 hours, the committee adjourned Thursday without taking action on the bill itself. Grijalva said the panel would reunite Sept. 9 to vote on the remaining amendments and the bill itself.

The Natural Resources portion of the spending plan includes $2.7 billion for “overdue Indian water rights settlements,” $2 billion for health infrastructure to serve tribal members and $500 million for tribal housing.

It would also provide $1 billion for tribal climate resilience, $900 million for national wildfire management, $225 million for climate resilience and restoration and $100 million for mitigating climate-induced severe weather.

Grijalva, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he would work with House and Senate colleagues to add funding to other programs in the committee’s jurisdiction, including the Indian Health Service.

Moderate Democrats Ed Case of Hawaii and Jim Costa of California said they would support the Natural Resources sections of the bill, but had concerns with the overall $3.5 trillion spending plan and the process for passing it, foreshadowing the difficult path to passage for the bill.

The largest single piece of the bill would spend $3.5 billion to create a Civilian Climate Corps, a long-standing priority of U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) meant to put thousands of mostly young people to work on tasks that address the climate crisis. The funding would be split between the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Native American lands.

Additional funding for the corps is likely to be included in portions of the bill written by the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and the House Education and Labor Committee, Neguse spokeswoman Sally Tucker said in an email.

Several Republicans on the panel opposed the language creating the climate corps, saying it would create more federal bureaucracy but not necessarily make any difference in meeting climate goals, and that a jobs program was unneeded when many businesses are looking for workers. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) offered an amendment to remove the corps provisions from the bill.

Neguse objected to the amendment, calling the program a necessary response to the climate crisis that will train future stewards of the nation’s public lands.

Oil and gas and mining reforms

To pay for the spending on those and other items, the bill makes changes to mining and oil and gas development. The bill would increase royalty rates, end noncompetitive leasing for energy and mineral development and establish royalties for hardrock mining.

Committee Democrats framed the changes as ways to raise revenue for other parts of the bill.

Republicans said the changes would not increase federal revenue because the industry would slow as its costs rose.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-N.M.) said the oil and gas provisions weren’t intended to raise revenue but instead to end fossil fuel development on federal lands, which she said would hurt her oil-rich district.

“The true motive behind these fee increases is to make producing energy on federal lands so unattainable that the federal leasing program virtually would no longer exist,” she said.

Conservation activists and some elected Democrats have called for ending oil and gas development on federal lands as a way to curb climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

A summary document released by Grijalvasaid the bill aimed to remove “unnecessary industry subsidies and giveaways.”

Republican objections

Democrats expect to pass the larger reconciliation bill without any Republican votes, which was the aim of using reconciliation process in the first place.

Whether because of that reality or not, Thursday’s hearing was sharply divided along party lines, with Republicans raising objections not only to the substance of the bill, but its process and timing.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican who joined the markup remotely with downed trees and heavy-duty trucks in the background of his video feed during apparent Hurricane Ida assistance efforts, said the meeting shouldn’t happen while the immediate disaster response was ongoing.

“If someone thinks that establishing a Civilian Climate Corps is more important than going through search and rescue, more important than refrigerating insulin, more important than getting that lady oxygen that doesn’t have it right now, that’s fine,” he said. “I wish you would explicitly say that so we could show the American people your true colors.”

A pair of Democrats answered that the devastating storm gave all the more reason to act on climate measures. Climate change makes severe weather events more common.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said people impacted by flooding and other disasters still had to report to work, so Congress should continue to work and do something to address the issue.

“I need to do something to help my residents,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) dismissed the idea that “to do nothing on climate change or to delay solutions … would somehow do justice or help victims of hurricanes.”

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