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.

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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 Scott GardnerThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number 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 CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Bill Gates visits Capitol to discuss climate change with new Senate caucus The Memo: ISIS leader's death is no game-changer for Trump MORE (D-Del.) told The Hill.

A sweeping overhaul might have a chance in the Senate, where Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOn The Money: US paid record .1B in tariffs in September | Dems ramp up oversight of 'opportunity zones' | Judge hints at letting House lawsuit over Trump tax returns proceed Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Overnight Defense: Trump, Erdogan confirm White House meeting | Public impeachment hearings set for next week | Top defense appropriator retiring MORE (D-N.H.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanRepublicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump GOP lawmakers fear Trump becoming too consumed by impeachment fight Synagogues ramp up security in year since Tree of Life shooting 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 WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFalling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts Overnight Health Care: CDC links vitamin E oil to vaping illnesses | White House calls Pelosi drug price plan 'unworkable' | Dem offers bill for state-based 'Medicare for All' White House says Pelosi plan to lower drug prices 'unworkable' MORE (D-Ore.) and ranking member Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Pay America's Coast Guard 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 WhitehouseDemocratic senators seek documents on Trump's alleged call for Barr press conference Senate committee advances budget reform plan Bipartisan Enzi-Whitehouse budget bill a very bad fix for deficits 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.