Momentum slows for major energy bill

Momentum slows for major energy bill
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Lawmakers and energy reform advocates are pushing the Senate to quickly join a House energy bill conference committee amid concerns that progress is stalling. 

Despite House’s vote to do so in May, the Senate has yet to appoint members to a committee that would write a compromise energy bill.

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest industry groups in Washington, sent the Senate a letter Monday saying it would score members’ votes on a motion to join the committee. The prodding provided an indication that interest groups are eager for lawmakers to move forward on the energy bill as the window for legislative action this year shrinks.

“The consensus approach in the Senate has worked so well so far, and we’d like to see them press ahead with that,” said Ron Eidshaug, the Chamber’s vice president for congressional and public affairs.

“It takes work to get a bill that gets 60 [votes] in the Senate, and it takes a lot of work to get 218 in the House. It’s going to take a lot more work to get to 218 and 60 in both chambers, but we think they can do it.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiCain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed License to discriminate: Religious exemption laws are trampling rights in rural America MORE (Alaska), the bill’s leading Republican sponsor, said Tuesday she remained committed to forging a compromise bill this year. She and other legislative leaders — including the energy committee’s top Democrat, Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMore than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington State rules complicate push for federal data privacy law MORE (Wash.) — were due to meet on the path forward on Tuesday afternoon.

“My hope is that we will be able to bring it up on the floor and see if we can’t get the votes to go to conference and appoint conferees and get a move on,” she said.

“There’s so much good contained within this bill, but you can’t get to it without a conference.” 

The Senate energy bill approved in April is designed to streamline federal policy for the first time in a decade. 

The Senate legislation is a pared-down version of the House’s energy bill, which includes red meat for conservatives that drove away Democratic support when it hit the floor last year. House members attached even more controversial provisions when they voted to go to a conference committee in April, such as a GOP package to relieve the California drought strongly opposed by Democrats and a measure to bypass environmental regulations for energy projects on Native American land, among others. 

Industry experts say the additions have caused concern among Democrats, especially in the Senate.

“I think they are somewhat disappointed,” Radha Adhar, a policy representative for the Sierra Club, said. “There was a lot of bipartisan momentum and excitement coming off the passage of [the Senate bill], and that momentum has all but ground to a halt after the House passed their bill.”

The Sierra Club, an ally of Democrats, opposes the House bill and doesn’t want the Senate to go to conference on it, Adhar said.

But energy and business groups have aggressively pushed members to go to a conference committee in the hope that lawmakers can pass a bill based around several major Senate provisions, including work to expand energy efficiency programs and clear the way for expanded liquefied natural gas exports.

“We understand there is certainly opposition, or at least concern, on the Senate side about what’s in the House version,” said Ross Eisenberg, the vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“But that’s what the conference is for. Our hope is that we get to conference — there’s things in both bills that are great — and that they can make the sausage the way you make sausage.”

Optimism for passing an energy reform package has waxed and waned.

Leadership in both the House and Senate threw their support behind writing reform bills early last year. A series of bipartisan bills approved in late 2015 raised hopes an energy bill could be next, but a fight over funding for the Flint, Mich., water crisis bogged down the Senate bill for months.

The Senate finally passed the energy legislation in April, on an 85-12 vote. But there are still major differences between the House and Senate bills that could complicate a conference committee, should one ever convene.

Time is running short, with Congress set to break in mid-July for the summer presidential nominating conventions. After that, Congress will only be in session for a few weeks before November’s elections and the lame-duck session. 

“We’re running out of clock here, we’re running out of calendar here,” Eisenburg said, though he noted other major energy and environment bills have passed after elections.

“So things can get done when there’s a will there. Our hope is that the calendar’s not working against us.”

Eidshaug said he’s optimistic an energy package could come together in light of other congressional deal-making this year, including a major chemical safety overhaul bill passed this month. 

“Sen. [James] Inhofe [R-Okla.] and Sen. [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.] were able to work with the House and negotiate provisions on the [Toxic Substances Control Act],” he said. 

“If Inhofe and Boxer can do that, we have complete confidence that Sens. Murkowski and Cantwell will be able to negotiate with the House on this.”