WASHINGTON—During this tenuous time when dozens of House Republicans and coal-state Democrats continue to castigate her agency as evil incarnate, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seems to be heeding words of encouragement proffered by Rep. Norman Dicks.
"Don't be intimidated," the Washington Democrat told her during a recent appropriations hearing. "Do your job."
Jackson appeared as unflappable, patient and engaged as ever as senators and representatives doled out criticisms, quips and kudos during five total hours of intense questioning that began in a Senate committee last Wednesday afternoon and wrapped up with a House subpanel Thursday afternoon.
Both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee had invited Jackson to their respective one-two punch of hearings to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency's 2012 budget.
Unsurprisingly, however — with the federal government potentially on the verge of a shutdown — talk turned to the tumultuousness of unfinished business on the 2011 fiscal year budget.
House Republicans affiliated with the tea party movement riled up their moderate brethren and most Democrats in both chambers by targeting the EPA with a measure they approved Feb. 19 that whacks $61 billion from the budget year that plays out Sept. 30. GOP amendments adding up to $3 billion would pare the EPA's budget by one-third — the deepest cuts to any federal agency — and impair its ability to deploy the Clean Air Act to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Democrats such as Dicks, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the environment committee, have vowed to fend off efforts to hamstring the EPA's authority to protect the environment and the public's health.
"I think what you're doing today in terms of climate change is absolutely essential," Dicks told Jackson at Thursday's hearing, adding that denying global warming's existence is "preposterous."
His comments echoed what Boxer told Jackson the previous afternoon.
"We have seen that a healthy environment and a thriving economy go hand in hand," she said. "Since the year Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, U.S. GDP has risen by 207 percent. Healthier air for our families leads to greater productivity and greater earning power, because if you can't breathe, you can't work or go to school."
EPA Could Be Spared from GOP Budget Cuts
While green groups continue to hammer on House Republicans, Capitol Hill insiders predict that GOP leaders are willing to compromise on the environmental front to avoid the shutdowns that sullied the party's image in the mid-1990s.
In other words, the EPA could well be spared from any drastic cutbacks.
Signs first emerged last week when Senate Democrats rejected the maligned GOP proposal. Then, Republicans agreed to remove all of the "anti-EPA" riders during negotiations to produce a last-minute, two-week emergency spending bill to fund the government through March 18. The temporary measure slices $4 billion from the entire federal budget.
And that stopgap action is likely to provide the blueprint for whatever compromise emerges as Vice President Joe Biden assumes the role of mediator with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to figure out what trims are reasonable over the next six-plus months.
"Those EPA riders don't cut the deficit," Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection told SolveClimate News in an interview. "They do nothing except get the Democrats mad and leave the moderate Republicans wondering what is going on."
"If the issue is to reduce the size and scope of the federal budget, EPA is just not a big cost driver," continued DiPeso, vice president for policy and communications. "If the goal is to balance the budget, you're not going to get there by cutting the EPA."
The riders became part of the landscape for two reasons, he noted. One, representatives receiving significant funding from oil and coal interests feel their states' economies are threatened by EPA's carbon control efforts. And two, the tea party has expanded the number of ideologues in Congress and exacerbated their libertarian slant.
Combine those two, he said, and you come up with lots of freshman with no experience in government who viewed the 2011 continuing resolution on the budget as a chance to make a loud statement to their base.
The wild card in the Biden negotiations is finding out if Boehner is capable of restraining what DiPeso refers to as "the overwrought members of his caucus."
"Biden has been given the assignment of rushing into the burning building and trying to pull out legislation," DiPeso said. "With his experience … he knows the art of the deal."
Anti-EPA Bill Gains Democratic Co-Sponsors
Even if Democrats and moderate Republicans manage to keep anti-EPA riders out of the 2011 continuing resolution, some legislators are still pursuing proposals to put the kibosh on the agency.