Hopes fade in Congress for energy reform

Hopes fade in Congress for energy reform
© Greg Nash

Hopes are fading that Congress can pass a broad energy bill before the year ends.

Leaders of energy committees in the House and Senate made it a top priority this session to pass the first major energy overhaul since 2007.

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By setting their sights low and avoiding hot-button issues that could sink bipartisan action, they thought it was possible to get a bill through an often-dysfunctional Congress, even in an election year.

Now, with a little less than three months before Congress will effectively halt work for the year and adjourn for political conventions and campaigning, their legislation is on life support.

Here’s how hopes for an energy bill in 2016 fizzled.

 

A hopeful start

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHouse passes bill to expand workplace protections for nursing mothers Democrats look for plan B on filibuster Senate will vote on John Lewis voting bill as soon as next week MORE (R-Alaska) and her panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate Democrat calls on Facebook to preserve documents related to whistleblower testimony Biden says he has directed DOJ to focus on violence from unruly airline passengers Looking to the past to secure America's clean energy future MORE (Wash.) huddled as early as 2014 to begin their work.

They were determined to update energy policy to account for industry changes including the growth of renewables and new domestic oil and natural gas production. 

The House went first. Last summer, a House Energy Committee subpanel unanimously approved a watered-down energy reform bill. But as the Senate debated other pieces of legislation, House members got restless, Upton said.

Determined to get something to the floor and win over Republicans, GOP leaders packed the bill with red-meat conservative provisions that turned off Democrats.  

The bill passed committee with mostly Republican support. It came to the floor in December, securing only nine Democratic votes and garnering a veto threat from the White House. 

“When Chairman Upton and I first talked about energy legislation, I was encouraged that we would be working together to develop a consensus, bipartisan bill,” ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said at the time.

“Unfortunately, that effort fell apart ... The House is taking up a backward-looking piece of energy legislation at a time we need to move forward.”

 

Flint becomes an issue

Murkowski and Cantwell decided last year to press ahead with the long, difficult process of writing a broad energy bill. They knew the Senate’s reputation for dysfunction and gridlock, and that the upcoming election would complicate matters.

But the leaders thought if they avoided contentious issues like offshore drilling and renewable energy tax credits, they could overcome the odds and pass a bill.

Momentum grew at the end of 2015, when a series of bipartisan measures — a tax bill, government funding, and transportation reauthorization — moved through Congress. That raised hopes energy legislation could be next.

The 300-page energy bill passed out of the Senate committee on an 18-4 vote. But the lead contamination crisis with Flint, Mich.’s, drinking water took the national spotlight in January just as the energy bill came to the floor.

Democrats saw the bill as an effective vehicle to get much-needed money to the city. Michigan’s senators asked to attach Flint aid to the bill, and the entire Democratic caucus blocked debate on a version of the bill that didn't include the package.

Republicans balked at writing a “blank check” for the city, so the two parties agreed in February on a smaller aid package for all cities experiencing water contamination issues. The package is separate from the energy bill but their fates are tied together.

A bipartisan group of senators has been working to smooth out the agreement, but political issues remain.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeCawthorn, Lee introduce bills banning interstate travel vaccine mandate Retreating economy creates new hurdle for Democrats in 2022 McConnell vows GOP won't help raise debt ceiling in December after Schumer 'tantrum' MORE (R-Utah) is blocking the Flint package, worried about how the government will make the aid payments. Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA adviser quits after request to change name of James Webb telescope denied NASA won't rename James Webb Space Telescope despite controversy FAA unveils new system to reduce planes' times on taxiway MORE (D-Fla.), meanwhile, is looking to prevent a potential GOP amendment on offshore drilling he thinks would lead to drilling off Florida’s coast.

Lee’s office said they sent a new Flint offer to negotiators on Monday, but wouldn’t say what was in it. Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate Democrats dial down the Manchin tension Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B MORE (D-Mich.) said there has been limited progress over Lee's hold.

Asked if he still has his hold, Nelson smiled and said, “Of course I do.”

Without agreement on those two issues, the energy package won't come back to the floor.

 

Frustration builds

Senate Energy Committee members of both parties have shown frustration that the broad reform bill has stalled.

“This is a bill that passed with tremendous bipartisan support out of committee, has tremendous support, and it would be a shame if obstructionist tactics lead it its collapse,” Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerColorado remap plan creates new competitive district Protecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm MORE (R-Colo.) said this week. “It’s shameful. Do your job.”

“Time kills deals,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

"Time is not on our side," he added. "I hope some of this gets resolved, so there’s always hope."

Cantwell said the bill could be the next one on the floor, though she acknowledged supporters have said that for weeks.

“It’s a shame, there’s so much important energy policy," she said. "Hopefully our colleagues that are holding it up will stop doing that.”

Industry supporters also aren’t sure there is enough political will — or time on the calendar — to get something done.

The Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind the Senate bill, but Christopher Guith, a senior vice president at its Institute for

21st Century Energy, said his hope something might get done is fading.

“Are there things in this bill that are so important that needs to get passed this Congress? That’s really what the ultimate question is,” said Guith. “I can certainly say that from our perspective, yes there are. But you look at 535 members of Congress … it’s difficult to see that path right this second.”

Public attention to energy policy has faded as issues like national security dominate the campaign, Guith said, sapping the political pressure to act.

The bills also don’t have the broad support from outside groups lawmakers hoped for, and some influential groups on both sides have come out against the bill.

The Heritage Foundation objects to many of the main provisions in both chambers’ bills. Nick Loras, a Heritage energy economist, said the bills go too far in favoring specific industries or creating new government programs.

The Sierra Club is particularly bothered by the House bill.

“It is truly the parade of horribles,” said Radha Adhar, the group’s policy representative. “None of the truly bipartisan, consensus provisions that both sides of the aisle agreed on, including the environmental community, were really included in the House bill."

Murkowski this week said the Senate needs to move quickly to pass the bill, before lawmakers move to 2017 appropriations bills.

“There is a schedule that the leader would like to keep, and I concur with him,” she said. “But if we’ve got a consent agreement that allows for a very limited time and we can just move right through ... I’d like to do that.”

Upton isn't giving up on getting something to the White House this year. If the Senate gets its bill done, he said, the House is ready to work.

“At the end of the day, I think we’re going to get a bill that the president is going to sign,” he said. “And to me, it’s not worth the exercise if he’s not going to sign it.”