House spending bill markups at a standstill

Fight started before the July 4 recess, when Republicans attempted to attach the Interior appropriations bill to the Labor-HHS one.

The regular order for the appropriations process inched closer to oblivion Wednesday as House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., shot down the possibility of any movement from his panel.

"There aren't going to be any markups," he said.

The rift stems from the fracas that took place during the House Appropriations Committee markup of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill just prior to the Independence Day break.

At the markup, Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., tried to offer the Interior appropriations bill as an amendment to the Labor-HHS bill. The move was an effort to try to force a vote on repealing a restriction on offshore oil drilling.

Republicans have been eyeing the Interior appropriations bill as a vehicle to advance their energy agenda, including allowing more domestic drilling and production.

In response, Obey angrily adjourned the meeting and said the appropriations process was done for the year.

Obey reiterated that point Wednesday, when he said there would be no more markups from his panel.

On Wednesday, Lewis said he will refrain from seeking to offer the Interior bill as an amendment to other appropriations legislation once Obey schedules a full committee markup date for the measure. But the lines of communication seem to be frayed.

"I waited for two months to have the chairman to talk to me about the [Iraq war] supplemental," Lewis said, "I am not going to go in there two months from now" to get this issue settled.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., told CongressDaily Wednesday that it appears likely that "if any" appropriations legislation comes to the floor it will not be before the last week of the month.

Aides and Democratic lawmakers close to the issue also confirmed that Democratic leaders are not planning to complete the entire slate of fiscal 2009 funding bills.

Instead, sources said that leaders plan to pass a continuing resolution just prior to the October recess and not return after the November elections.

Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused Democratic leaders of going to "outrageous lengths" to "short-circuit the entire appropriations process" in order to avoid having their members take votes aimed at increasing domestic energy supplies.

One Democratic lawmaker dismissed the potential for voter blow-back, saying the move is an "umbrella plan" intended to protect Democrats.

The lawmaker noted that nothing can get passed in the current political environment and argued that attempting to complete the entire slate of appropriations bills would lead to "confrontation after confrontation" which would be detrimental to voter sympathy heading into November.

Meanwhile, Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is seeking $910 million in fire fighting, prevention and rehabilitation funding to be included in a second supplemental spending package being discussed by Senate and House Democratic leaders.

Feinstein made the request Wednesday in a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. She said that hundreds of wildfires burning in California threaten to deplete federal firefighting resources early in the fire season.

"The situation in California is explosive: Excessive heat warnings have been issued, more dry-lightning strikes are expected, our resources are stretched to the breaking point, and the state remains tinder-dry," Feinstein said. "The governor has informed the president that without more help, we can no longer adequately protect lives and property. This emergency funding is necessary to counteract this untenable situation."

The $910 million would be used by the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department. Of that amount, $610 million would go to wildfire suppression; $125 million to reduce the number of dead and dying trees that can serve as fuel for future fires on state and private lands; $100 million for rehabilitation; $50 million for dead and dying tree reduction on federal lands, and $25 million for firefighter recruitment and retention in high-risk areas.