WASHINGTON – Conservative flashpoint issues from abortion and abstinence education to President Barack Obama's health care law are the biggest obstacles to Congress completing a massive year-end spending bill next week that would keep the government running through next September.
Going into end-game negotiations this weekend on the $900-plus billion bill, Republicans expect to lose on most of the policy provisions, or "riders," they added to House versions of the must-do spending measures. But the White House and Democrats are poised to make concessions on some environmental rules, wetlands regulations and, in all likelihood, on continuing a ban on government-funded abortions in the nation's capital city.
"We're meeting heavy resistance from the White House and Democrats in the Senate," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who is pressing for provisions to help the coal industry. "So, we'll get as many as we possibly can."
Among most popular targets for Republicans are environmental regulations they say hamper the economy, such as proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on coal ash, large-scale discharges of hot water and greenhouse gases from electric power plants, and emissions from cement plants and oil refineries.
If past is prologue, most of the issues will end up on the chopping block. That's what happened last spring during negotiations on a spending bill for the budget year that ended in September.
"There's a lot of opposition to these and they know they need Democratic votes in the House to pass it," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. "So we have made this very clear to the other side. ... If you expect our votes you've got to get rid of the controversial riders."
But some riders will be needed to win GOP support for the measure in votes next week. And many of the provisions are important to powerful members of the appropriations panel in both parties.
"We don't want to be wholly inflexible," said Rep. James Moran of Virginia, top Democrat on the spending panel responsible for the EPA's budget. That measure is studded with riders.
"Virtually every rule the EPA has come up with, they're trying to come up with a rider to stop it," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The roster of environmental riders is indeed lengthy.
For coal interests, there is a rider to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains as well as a rider to block proposed labor rules to limit miners' exposure to coal dust, which causes black-lung disease. Electric utilities would benefit from delays of rules on traditional air pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide. Painting contractors would benefit from a delay in a 2008 rule that requires them to be certified by the EPA in order to remove lead paint.
"We're pretty clear that we find these riders as unacceptable," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. "We're being very emphatic."
On social issues, there are proposals to ban needle exchange programs that help stem the spread of HIV among drug users; cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading provider of abortions; and adopt an abstinence-only approach for grants to reduce teen pregnancy.
Those riders, in addition to GOP efforts to block implementation of the new health care law — a nonstarter with Democrats and the White House — are among the reasons the labor, health and education chapter of the omnibus spending measure is at risk of being left out of the final bill.
"It's from soup to nuts," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "They just designed an ideological agenda."
In addition to proposing to eliminate federal family planning funding, Republicans would block the District of Columbia government from providing abortions to poor women, which is a top priority of anti-abortion activists.
The D.C. abortion rider was in place when Republicans controlled the White House but was lifted after Obama took office. He reluctantly agreed to reinstate the funding ban this year, prompting Washington's mayor and city council members to march on Capitol Hill. Democrats continue to fight the rider, but GOP leaders are likely to insist on it.
At the same time, Republicans are trying to reverse a loss earlier this year when they tried to block taxpayer money from going to Washington's needle exchange program.
Some of the riders aren't contentious. For instance, even though the EPA has no interest in regulating methane emissions from cow burps and flatulence, there's a rider to block the agency from doing so. That's fine with Democrats.
Then there are riders that have no practical effect but set a precedent that agencies would prefer to avoid. One would block the EPA from officially delineating any new wetlands in counties affected by flooding this year. It turns out that the agency has no plans to do so, so this might be a rider Democrats and the White House would accept.
Another battle involves an attempt to block the Obama administration's 2009 policy lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to families remaining in Cuba. That provision drew an explicit Obama veto threat earlier this year and will probably be dropped in end-stage negotiations.
The White House warned last week it'll play a strong hand in trying to keep the final measure as free of riders as possible. "There should be no miscalculation about the intensity of (Obama's) feelings," White House budget director Jacob Lew told reporters.