Senate votes for energy bill negotiations with House

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The Senate voted Tuesday to move forward with its wide-ranging energy policy bill by entering formal negotiations for a compromise with the House.

Lawmakers from both parties in the two chambers will now try to reconcile the Senate’s energy bill, passed in April, with a House package that passed in May and includes its energy bill from last year and dozens of previously passed Republican-backed measures.

{mosads}Tuesday’s vote follows weeks of negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats, led by Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), had resisted going to conference, fearing that the House’s package of bills would weigh down the final product, making it too conservative for Democrats to support and attracting a veto threat from President Obama.

In the end, both sides agreed to drop the most objectionable pieces from the House legislation and aim for a bipartisan agreement that Obama would sign.

“I will reiterate my personal commitment to a final bill that can pass both chambers and be signed into law by the president,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said on the Senate floor before the vote.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to unilaterally disarm ourselves in conference negotiations, but my objective here is to deliver a law.”

Cantwell, top Democrat on the committee, told reporters that per the agreement, she and her colleagues won’t threaten to derail negotiations entirely if the two sides can’t come to terms on certain items.

“What we were most concerned about was pursuing an agenda that definitely couldn’t get past the White House, and veto threats, and certainly wanted to look constructively at how we got a package on some issues that we knew if we couldn’t get resolved, it wouldn’t get resolved,” Cantwell said.

The House bill has “a lot of thorny issues,” Cantwell said, but both sides agreed that “if they didn’t get resolved, they wouldn’t hold up the whole thing.”

“It’s the same principle: Don’t hold it hostage for veto threat, don’t hold it hostage for things that you can’t get done,” she said.

Senators took a procedural vote to move forward on the conference proposal, which passed 84-3, and then immediately took a voice vote to pass the motion.

The Senate’s bill, dubbed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, has numerous provisions meant to modernize energy policy, including speeding up natural gas exports, updating the electric grid and encouraging energy efficiency.

The House’s bill is more focused on helping the fossil fuel industry; the White House threatened to veto it before it passed last year.

In May, when the House voted to enter conference negotiations, lawmakers added dozens of other, mostly Republican, provisions, including some to ease pipeline permitting, encourage more logging on federal lands and bring drought relief to California.

Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairmen of the House committees with jurisdiction, said last month that their goal is also to get a bill signed.

“At the end of the day, our goal is to get something to the president that he will sign into law,” they said in a joint statement.

The Tuesday vote also formally appointed seven senators to conduct the negotiations on the conference committee: Republican Sens. Murkowski, John Barrasso (Wyo.) Jim Risch (Idaho) and John Cornyn (Texas), Democrats Cantwell and Ron Wyden (Ore.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats.

The House appointed conferees, 24 Republicans and 16 Democrats, just after its May vote to start negotiations.

Cantwell said lawmakers and their staff have been talking nearly constantly about a conference and will continue to do so.

If the conferees reach a deal by the end of the year, both chambers would have to pass it and Obama would have to sign it into law.

— Devin Henry contributed to this story.


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