Senate GOP drops 'poison pills' from key spending bill

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are ridding a key spending bill of controversial environmental provisions opposed by Democrats in an attempt to avoid the annual year-end budget pileup.

Tuesday's move by Sen. Lisa Murkowski extends an olive branch to Democrats and could allow the first floor debate on a key spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency since former President Barack Obama's first year in office. It's all part of an effort to avoid a catchall "omnibus" spending bill.

President Donald Trump has signed two such mega-bills since taking office but has vowed he won't do it again.

Republicans dropped a policy provision from previous years, for instance, that would have weakened a new government rule limiting methane waste from gas and oil drilling on public lands. It's one of several "riders" opposed by Democrats and environmental groups that have been included in the measure in past years, only to get stripped-out in end-stage negotiations.

By avoiding the fight now, Senate Republicans are speeding up debate on the measure and winning panel approval for the measure for the first time since 2009.

"We have stood down to allow this process to move forward," said Murkowski, R-Alaska.

It's part of a broader effort by old-school senators like Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and top panel Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont to get the chamber back to debating a $1.3 trillion bundle of spending bills more openly and to build greater support for them.

Efforts in recent years have been halting at best, but Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are on board as well in hopes of repairing relations in the fractured Senate. Spending levels are mostly agreed to under the terms of a two-year budget pact agreed to this February that reversed a painful round of spending cuts.

"Chairman Shelby and Vice-Chairman Leahy have been very strong in saying, 'We're going to the regular order and the way to do that is keep off the poison pills,'" said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "They have worked behind the scenes and empowered us ... to say 'no' to people."

In the House, the appropriations debates have remained partisan and the companion Interior and EPA measure — which is laced with GOP policy prescriptions — may never get a floor vote.

The measure also rejects huge budget cuts proposed by Trump in this year's budget. It boosts funding to fight western wildfires, freezes the EPA's budget, and reverses Trump's attempt to eliminate federal land acquisition grants.

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