The Senate’s passage of a budget deal on Wednesday got the Washington’s attention, but there’s another historic vote that might grab more notice: The budget legislation also includes the authorization of $3.5 billion in federal funding for a wide variety of environmental projects.
The largest piece of money in the legislation is $150 million for a project to trap and capture excess carbon dioxide, a positive sign that Congress may well be looking for ways to deal with global warming. “It can only get better after this,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who’s charged with making climate science a central part of his campaign for Senate. “These are policies that will help limit climate change.”
The funding is still in the form of a water and wildlife bill, which comes with significant strings attached. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency would not be allowed to move money it already has in other projects to this new work. Then there’s the fact that it’s bipartisan in nature, and three Democrats voted against the provision. Yet, it’s one more evidence that Republicans are focusing on climate change issues, even as they work to block climate initiatives elsewhere. “It was a bipartisan effort, so it should have garnered bipartisan support,” said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s not a story about who is letting Republicans off the hook on climate. It’s about trying to do something here.”
Other environmental projects, for the most part, have bipartisan support, but the money is less secure. For instance, $37 million would go toward a protection around the Great Plains that includes land purchased from timber companies to protect wetlands. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina warned, “We need to ensure this project is not seen as an exclusive, safe harbor for corporations to continue their recklessness in land management.” But she didn’t work to block funding for it.
The legislation authorizes spending on another series of conservation and environmental issues. Each, if passed, will take money out of other areas of the government. The law authorizing new funding would require an additional resolution of approval, including, theoretically, a presidential signature.
A group of Republican freshmen wrote a letter to the Senate appropriations committee in early March, asking it to hold off on authorization votes for environmental programs until they have a better sense of what lawmakers will be approving in the future.
At the time, they said, their efforts weren’t about playing favorites on the environment, but to make sure the appropriations process is environmentally sound. “It must be clear to everyone that next fiscal year’s budget will prioritize spending,” wrote freshman Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Cory Gardner of Colorado. “And while the administration proposes spending trillions to support costly government programs and regulations, we must do our part to ensure that Americans have the same amount of money to spend where it matters most.”
Getting attention and prioritizing spending issues involves a political calculation. They know it’s not popular for a lawmaker to go on record against funding measures or funding for a particular program. “Anything that shows how serious this is, they are going to point to,” said Batalova. “But there’s not too much else to point to at this point.”