Energy push losing power in Congress

Bipartisan hopes for a rare compromise on energy that would expand conservation programs are dimming as lawmakers face a daunting political divide over new federal spending.

Lawmakers entered the new Congress optimistic that energy efficiency legislation could reach President Obama’s desk, but the vast gulf between the parties on taxes and the role of government has clouded the outlook on a broad bill.

While Democrats want to drive down power use in buildings and factories through tax credits and grants, Republicans say any legislation that increases federal spending is a nonstarter, and instead they support measures aimed at reducing the government’s energy use.

Advocates of a “big deal” on energy efficiency acknowledge they face an uphill climb.

“Anything attached to spending is going to be tough over the next two years. But then again, I think we have to try,” Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerNorth Korea tests rocket engine for ICBM People with disabilities will pay for the GOP’s Medicaid cuts These GOP senators need to stand up to their party on healthcare MORE (R-Colo.) told The Hill.

“The problem I see is that if there’s any new program or any money, then it’s something that won’t get any kind of traction in the House,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers characterize energy efficiency as low-hanging fruit. They often tout the economic benefits of helping consumers and businesses cut energy costs, and say efficiency legislation could boost U.S. businesses.

“What’s particularly appealing about energy efficiency as an area in which to legislate is that has enjoyed bipartisan support, it is an area that should attract support from the House and it is an area that is broadly agreed to be — one that should be — above politics,” Sen. Chris CoonsChris CoonsDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Overnight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Overnight Tech: Uber CEO resigns | Trump's Iowa tech trip | Dems push Sessions to block AT&T-Time Warner deal | Lawmakers warned on threat to election systems | MORE (D-Del.) told The Hill.

A sweeping overhaul might have a chance in the Senate, where Sens. Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate overwhelmingly passes Russia sanctions deal Russia sanctions deal clears key Senate hurdle MORE (D-N.H.) and Rob PortmanRob PortmanSanders to headline 'Don't Take Our Health Care' bus tour Rocky rollout for Senate healthcare bill The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-Ohio) plan to revive a comprehensive energy efficiency bill that enjoyed bipartisan committee support last session.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will put its weight behind that measure, as committee Chairman Ron WydenRon WydenDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate bill would repeal most ObamaCare taxes, delay Cadillac tax Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (D-Ore.) and ranking member Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Healthcare: Latest on Senate healthcare bill | Four conservatives say they'll oppose | Obama slams bill | Health groups offer scathing criticism The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Alaska) both back it.

The bill is largely expected to remain the same as last session’s version, according to Rob Mosher, legislative director with the Alliance to Save Energy, which was heavily involved with the bill last year.

If it mirrors last session’s effort, the measure would set more stringent efficiency standards for new building codes, create new tax credits, provide funding for research and development and establish state revolving grant program for efficiency upgrades for commercial and industrial consumers.

But the overhaul is likely dead on arrival in the Republican House, where conservatives are quick to rally against legislation that they see as meddling in the marketplace. 

“I always think we need to take a free-market approach to these things, and others have a different idea of where they think we ought to provide enormous government incentives,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) told The Hill.

The era of belt-tightening that has taken hold in Washington is one of the main obstacles to a deal. 

Democrats say Congress needs to double down on efficiency investments now to see greater returns in the future. 

“It’s hard for me to ever characterize where some of the colleagues come from,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) told The Hill. “I would love an aggressive agenda on energy efficiency and spurring that with tax credits or incentives.”

But Republicans say the government simply can’t afford a new federal program that might grow more expensive over time.

“We have to proceed with some caution when it comes to tax credits,” said Gardner, who has taken the GOP lead on promoting energy savings performance contracts.

House Republicans singled out performance contracts as their preferred path forward on energy efficiency during a recent House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Energy and Power hearing.

The agreements enable government agencies to contract with private firms to make energy efficiency improvements. Whatever savings the government sees from the energy improvements would be passed along to the companies performing the work.

Many Democrats, however, said such measures are toothless.

“It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of agreement” between the approaches from House Democrats and Republicans, Matsui said.

Given the political landscape, lawmakers might have to settle for more modest bills that encourage the government and consumers to cut energy use. One option would be requiring upgrades for various appliances through legislation. 

Mosher, of the Alliance to Save Energy, said energy efficiency advocates might also wrangle some concessions through the appropriations process or by tinkering with expiring tax provisions. But the tax reform effort will likely keep that on hold, he said.

If legislation stalls, it’s possible that the president could use his executive powers to wage an administration-wide efficiency push.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseJudiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting GOP hits the gas on ObamaCare repeal Dems limited in their ability to slow ObamaCare vote MORE (D-R.I.) have pushed Obama to use unilateral action on energy efficiency and other issues to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.

“There’s a lot that the administration can do on its own,” Waxman, the top House Energy and Commerce Democrat, told The Hill.