In an audio recording of a strategy session obtained by The Intercept, major trade association lobbyists discussed how the refugee crisis has changed the political dynamics in Washington to their advantage.
In the conference call held last week, lobbyists representing a number of high-polluting industries agreed that the battle between Congress and President Obama on refugee policy will give them the cover they need to attach a legislative rider to the omnibus budget bill that rolls back newly expanded clean water regulation.
“I think that probably helps us,” one participant said, referring to the coming confrontation over refugee policy.
The White House has issued veto threats against previous attempts by Congress to block the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, a regulation finalized this year that extends Clean Water Act protections to millions of acres of wetlands and streams. So attaching a rider blocking WOTUS to the omnibus was potentially going to attract a lot of attention. Until now.
Now, lawmakers are expected to attach a provision to the omnibus bill to block Syrian refugee resettlement — a move that is bound to become the focus of any government shutdown confrontation between Congress and the White House.
“We’re suddenly not the big issue,” said one call participant. “I mean, this is all going to turn on refugees.”
“I think that helps us,” said another call participant. “I think it helps us with the White House being on defense,” another legislative strategist on the call said.
The remarks were made during a political strategy call hosted last week by energy utility industry lobbyists. A recording was sent to The Intercept by someone on the call.
Listen to the exchange below. The comments about the refugee crisis begin at (2:15).
The call was hosted by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for major electric utility companies. It was organized to discuss strategies for defeating the WOTUS rule, which clarifies existing law to provide Clean Water Act protections to 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands.
Participants in the call included senior officials and lobbyists from some of the largest trade associations in Washington, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the National Association of Home Builders, and the American Farm Bureau. The total attendance list for the call, however, is not clear given that some participants did not identify themselves or only identified themselves by first name.
Lobbyists have worked for months on efforts to block the WOTUS rule, including a challenge in federal court and legislative proposals to block implementation.
Asked for comment, Liz Thompson, the director of media relations with the National Association of Home Builders, said Courtney Briggs, the NAHB federal legislative director and a participant in the strategy call, did not remember discussing the refugee issue to advance a rider on the WOTUS rule.
“Having spoken to Courtney, she doesn’t recall anyone saying the quote you referenced. The Syrian crisis has absolutely no bearing on our discussions. With only two weeks left in the legislative calendar, the purpose of the call was to have an open discussion on the options available to us, including possibly adding a rider in the final omnibus appropriations bill,” Thompson said in a statement.
EEI did not provide a comment for this story. The Farm Bureau did not respond to a request for comment.
Lobbyists frequently use “must pass” legislation, such as raising the debt-ceiling and government appropriation bills, to enact proposals that would otherwise face a presidential veto. In the last omnibus spending bill, legislators slipped riders onto the bill that repealed rules that prevent banks from using taxpayer-backed funds from trading in derivatives, as well as more than $3 billion in weapons programs the Pentagon did not ask Congress to fund.
Before the attacks in Paris on November 13 fueled outrage at Syrian refugees, the Obama administration had prepared to face off with Congress over the various financial and environmental riders.
But the dynamics have shifted. If congressional leaders attach provisions to the omnibus to block Syrian refugee settlement, the Obama administration may be forced to accept a compromise that allows for other legislative riders to sneak through.
The participants on the EEI call appeared eager to use the refugee fight to distract the administration.
“In our big meeting this morning, all our lobbyists, their report back from the Hill over the last couple of days in House and Senate is that offices have been saying they are hearing more on this refugee issue than they have heard on any other issue in the last eight years, more than Obamacare, more than anything,” one the legislative strategists remarked.