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With the start of the 2007 fiscal year just hours away, the Senate has cleared a continuing resolution to keep funds for most government programs flowing through November 17. The stopgap measure will fund programs covered by all appropriations bills that are not enacted by the October 1 start of fiscal 2007, a list expected to include everything but the Defense (HR 5631) and Homeland Security (HR 5441) spending measures.

The continuing resolution was attached to the final fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill (HR 5631), the first that Congress has sent to President Bush for the coming year. The Senate cleared the package by 100-0.The stopgap spending measure will set funding at the lowest of the House-passed, Senate-passed or fiscal 2006 levels. But because the Senate has passed only the Defense and Homeland Security bills , the actual funding level will be the lowest of the House-passed or fiscal 2006 level for most of the measures. The House has not passed the Labor-HHS-Education spending measure (HR 5647), leaving funding for the broad array of domestic programs covered by that bill at the fiscal 2006 level. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-WV, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, denounced the Republican leadership for delaying action on the domestic spending bills prior to the start of the fiscal year. “When it comes to domestic priorities, the majority leadership is apparently satisfied with a mindless continuing resolution,” Byrd said. Congress is set to return November 13. Unless lawmakers are able to clear the remaining measures by Nov. 17 — an unlikely prospect — another continuing resolution will be needed. While the Appropriations chairmen, Representative Jerry Lewis, R-CA, and Senator Thad Cochran, R-MS, have reiterated their desire to avoid a year-end omnibus package of appropriations bills, they face many obstacles given the limited number of legislative days remaining this year.

So, challenges resulting from a $300 billion federal deficit continue in Congress. The House Interior-Environment Appropriations Bill (HR 5386), which provides the majority of funding to Northwest tribal natural resource programs (principally through BIA Fish and Wildlife Program/Rights Protection category) made it to the Senate Calendar on June 29, but hasn’t moved since. Northwest tribal representatives have met with members of the Northwest delegation on the appropriations committees, and have been assured they will do all they can to help secure tribal requests. HR 5386 was the first of the Fiscal Year 2007 spending bills to advance to the opposite house. However, the House and Senate Science, State, Justice and Commerce committees have worked up their bills. The largest issue of interest before these committees is the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. The House has low-balled that funding at $20 million while the Senate, due largely to the efforts of Senator Patty Murray, has secured $90 million. It remains to be seen, as with the Interior-Environment bill, what amounts will ultimately result. One possible scenario would be a “quick fix.” More likely there will be a series of Continuing Resolutions to guide Fiscal Year 2007 funding until (and if) a larger package is completed in December.

S.260, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act, has passed both the House and Senate and was sent to the President on September 15. The bill, which authorizes $75 million a year through FY 2011, requires the Department of Interior to carry out a program within the US Fish and Wildlife Service to assist “private landowners” in voluntary projects to benefit trust species by improving/restoring/enhancing/establishing habitat for fish and wildlife. “Private Landowners,” as defined in this bill, includes tribes. The bill’s primary sponsor is Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK.

On August 19, the Senate took action on the Water Resource Development Act, replacing language in the House version with the language in its own version, S 728. The current form of this “striker,” comprises a new version of HR 2864. The bill was returned to the Senate Calendar and is headed to conference. This bill funds the U.S. Army to carry out various water development projects, and includes a flood damage reduction project on the Chehalis River. The Chehalis River Valley has a broad meandering channel and a mile-wide floodplain. The average annual rainfall is about 42 inches. Major floods occur during the October to March period from heavy rainfall augmented by snowmelt runoff. The cities of Centralia and Chehalis have been subject to repeated flooding for many years. This flooding has caused extensive damage to private and public property and periodic closure of critical transportation routes resulting in significant economic losses. The plan consists of construction of a levee system along the Chehalis River and along most of the lower 2 miles of both Dillenbaugh Creek and Salzer Creek. A levee would also be constructed along the lower 2 miles of Skookumchuck River to the confluence with Coffee Creek. Skookumchuck Dam will be modified with a short gated outlet tunnel to create flood control storage; and structures that would be damaged from inundation as a result of the project will be raised. “Unavoidable” environmental impacts will include wetland and riparian habitat degradation and loss of habitat. Mitigation would be through a combination of wetland creation, re-vegetation of riparian habitat, and reconnection of an isolated oxbow with the mainstem Chehalis River. Total cost approximately $109 million.

A bill to authorize temporary exemptions to the TSCA has been moving in the House. The bill, HR 5863, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, has made it to the Union Calendar. It would authorize EPA to exempt polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) for 30 day emergency periods in order to allow “safe, effective and efficient” shipment of foreign manufactured PCB’s into the United States. The Department of Defense and its services and supplies adjunct, the Defense Logistics Agency, have been stockpiling PCB laden equipment in its warehouses overseas, particularly in Japan. This equipment, in part consisting of electric transformers, capacitors, voltage regulators, circuit breakers, and electric cable, which were manufactured both in the United States and abroad, is nearing the point of completely filling existing warehouse space. DOD and DLA are currently seeking ways to properly remove and dispose of this equipment to help alleviate storage capacity concerns.

Strange though it may seem, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never had “enabling” legislation, which is normally required to legally provide purpose and scope to a federal agency. If passed, NOAA would, in effect, be formally authorized for the first time in its 36 year history. H.R.5450, sponsored by Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-MI, would authorize NOAA as an agency within the Department of Commerce. The House has passed the bill and it was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on September 21. Under the bill, NOAA would be restructured around four areas: the National Weather Service, research and education, operations and services, and resources management. The bill would create a deputy assistant secretary for science and technology to coordinate science activities across the agency and a chief operating officer to manage the agency’s day-to-day operations. Since the agency was created by executive order in 1970, it has operated under a series of narrow, issue-based laws, and has never had its mission and function legislatively defined.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently revived the long-running fight over splitting the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue — an important one for cultural conservatives — has been largely dormant for much of the year, though House Republicans did make one attempt this past spring to split up the court through the budget reconciliation bill. Yet conservatives sense some new momentum behind the proposed split following comments earlier this summer from Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-PA, that he would favor the split and would like to move the legislation this year. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing was held on the issue last year, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, the leading opponent of efforts to divide the court, asked Specter for a hearing in full committee before any action is taken. With the 109th Congress winding down, it remains unclear whether the Senate will, in fact, take up the issue. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, has not laid out a specific schedule for the remaining two weeks of the session, but he has indicated there is a possibility the Senate will still take up some ideological issues — such as the the confirmation of judges. While several different court-splitting bills have been introduced, the bill that has so far received the most attention is S 1301, a measure sponsored by Sens. John Ensign, R-NV, and Lisa Murkowski, R-AK. That bill would split the 9th Circuit into two new circuits — a 9th that includes California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands and a new 12th Circuit that contains Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Arizona.

The House approved a similar court-splitting measure late last year as part of the budget reconciliation bill, but Specter and others objected to using the reconciliation process as a vehicle for the bill. The House has approved court-splitting legislation several times in the last few years but it has been repeatedly blocked in the Senate. The proposal has drawn strong opposition from environmentalists who see it is an effort by Western Republicans to remove the more liberal California judges from a court that routinely deals with public lands and other environmental matters. Proponents of the split have long argued that the 9th Circuit has become much too large to operate efficiently, as demonstrated by the fact that it takes an average of about 15.4 months for the court to hear and rule on an appeal — about 40 percent longer than the average for all other circuit courts.

The National Congress of American Indians and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes gave congressional staff a chance to consider tribes as the nation’s partners in energy production at a briefing session Sept. 13. Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of NCAI, said the goal of the briefing session and related visits to Capitol Hill was to show Congress the sheer volume of tribal energy production and to emphasize the extensive impact rights of way decisions can have in Indian Country.

Sen. John McCain, R-AR, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has postponed consideration of S 1439, the Trust Reform Act, due to lack of response on the issue from the Administration. McCain noted that at the first hearing the Indian Affairs Committee held on this issue last March, he made it very clear that all parties had to be committed to reaching a settlement. At that time there were strong commitments from the Interior Secretary and the Attorney General, who claimed there is both an atmosphere and positive attitude in the Administration to find a settlement solution, and that we have an historic opportunity to embrace constructive solutions to long-standing trust management concerns held by the tribes. McCain said he and Vice-Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-ND, have decided that the best approach to advancing this initiative now is to continue discussions with the parties to the Cobell litigation, rather than mark up S 1439 at this time. McCain said, “We must have that kind of commitment from (the Administration), the plaintiffs and the rest of Indian country to achieve a full and complete resolution to the entire issue of trust management that has plagued the Department and Indian Country for so many generations.” He committed his staff on the Committee to work with the plaintiffs’ representatives, the designated contacts of the Departments of Interior, Justice and Treasury, as well as the tribes, tribal organizations and individual Indian organizations to craft legislation.

Elouise Cobell, the namesake plaintiff in the case, issued a statement dismissing the Administration’s concerns as bad-faith negotiation designed to torpedo the bill. She acknowledged the short time frame, but insisted that legislation can still be passed if McCain brings all of his political skill and influence to bear on pushing it through the current 109th Congress. Any bill not passed into law by the end of the Congress becomes null until it is introduced from scratch in another Congress. Dorgan noted that if the bill cannot be passed, the lawsuit could stay in the courts for another 10 years. Cobell v. Kempthorne is a lawsuit on behalf of Native American against the United States government. It argues that the government has incorrectly accounted for Indian trust assets revealing mismanagement, ineptness, dishonesty, and delay by federal officials. Based on the research of committee staff, McCain and Dorgan had agreed on $8 billion as a fair settlement figure.

Thanks to former Vice President Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, along with Hurricane Katrina and this summer’s blistering heat waves, the threats posed by global warming have morphed from a far-fetched possibility to a clear and present danger in the minds of people ranging from voters and scientists to theologians and members of Congress. Many of those who previously scoffed at the notion are true believers now.

“It is getting hotter, and the icecaps are melting and there is a build-up of carbon dioxide in the air. We really need to address the burning of fossil fuels. If we are contributing to the destruction of this planet, we need to do something about it,” said Rev. Pat Robertson on a recent broadcast of the “700 Club.” He added that the recent heat waves had made a “convert” out of him on the issue.

“…science has changed from ambiguous to near-unanimous. As an environmental commentator, I have a long record of opposing alarmism. But based on the data, I’m now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert,” says Gregg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution and senior editor of The New Republic.

Representative Bob Inglis, R-NC, chairman of the House Science Research Subcommittee, says he “pooh-poohed” global warming until a trip to the South Pole in January convinced him otherwise. “I think we should all be concerned. There are more and more Republicans willing to stop laughing at climate change who are ready to get serious about reclaiming their heritage as conservationists.”

“I was a certified global warming skeptic…but I eventually came to the judgment that I was wrong and global warming was real, largely caused by human activities and profoundly changing the planet on which we live,” admitted Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist and director of weather communications for The Weather Channel.

“I used to be skeptical…but now I’m absolutely convinced that the world is spiraling out of control. CO2 is like a brushfire that gets bigger and bigger every year,” says Richard Branson, founder of The Virgin Group.

A national LA Times/Bloomberg poll conducted in July found that 74 percent of Americans consider “global warming a serious problem” and want the government to do more to solve it. The Bush Administration’s response? Silence. President Bush remains resolutely incurious while the planet heats.

The House has adopted what will likely be the 109th Congress’ only substantive response to the lobbying and ethics scandals that have embarrassed Capitol Hill during the past two years — a narrow rule change that will affect only one chamber for a few months. Republican leaders insisted they were just getting started and that they would seek to keep the rule, which requires disclosure of the sponsors of earmarks in appropriations bills and certain other kinds of legislation, alive in subsequent sessions of Congress. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-OH, says the new rule, House Resolution 1000, demonstrates Republican efforts to boost congressional accountability. But David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the resolution provided an inadequate solution to a large problem. Obey said, “It is a joke, it is a fraud, it plays Trivial Pursuit, it focuses on the minutiae instead of the big problems.” House action came as Rep. Bob Ney, R-OH, informed congressional leaders that he was ready to enter into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, according to a House GOP aide. Ney has been the subject of a criminal probe into allegations that he accepted gifts from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for legislative favors.
Congress has suffered a number of other ethical troubles recently. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-CA, the lawmaker whose extravagant lifestyle and relationship with defense contractors helped start the focus on congressional wrongdoing, is in prison after pleading guilty to bribery. A handful of other lawmakers also are under investigation for allegations of trading influence for gifts. Critics of congressional earmarks, which often have very narrowly targeted beneficiaries, say they help foster a climate of corruption. Both the House and Senate passed broader lobbying and ethics overhaul bills (HR 4975, S 2349) earlier this year, but lawmakers made little progress in working out differences between the two chambers.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently held an Oversight Hearing on Self-Governance Obstacles and Impediments to Expansion of Self-Governance. Department of Interior representatives were questioned by Senators McCain, Murkowski and Dorgan about the lack of expansion of Self-Governance within DOI. The spokespersons said the reason Self-Governance has reached a “plateau” is that tribes are not seeking to compact with the same zeal they had in the past. Tribal witnesses, including Jamestown S’Klallam Chair Ron Allen, told a different story—about DOI impediments that have impacted the expansion of Self-Governance. They resonated a consistent message that Self-Governance within the Department has digressed tremendously. McCain sought answers to allegations in the tribal testimony about the lack of full funding. DOI officials said these shortfalls occurred due to appropriations and rescissions. McCain asked how this happens to the tribal budget but not the Defense budget. There was no comment from the DOI witnesses.