Energy Bill Vote May Get Pushed to 2016

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski is waiting for the full Senate to debate her energy bill.
September 1, 2015 at 5:52 pm ET

The first broad energy legislation to pass a Senate committee in nearly a decade may get put on hold until next year as an increasingly divided Congress grapples with a swath of more immediate challenges. And because election-year politics can make it harder to pass big legislation, the energy bill’s proponents hope to avoid such a delay.

“We are ready to go when there is time on the floor,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Republicans.  But “there is no time set” yet for a floor debate, he added.

The Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015, introduced by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D–Wash.) in July, includes provisions aimed at bolstering energy efficiency, infrastructure, land and water conservation, and energy production and development. Following months of negotiations, the bill breezed through the panel by a bipartisan vote of 18-4 this summer.

But time is not on the sponsors’  side when it comes to the full Senate. When Congress returns on Sept. 8, the House and Senate will have less than four months to hammer out dozens of spending bills, avert a government shutdown, respond to the Iran deal, settle a re-enlivened debate over defunding Planned Parenthood, pass a highway bill, reform toxic substance control laws, and reconcile House and Senate differences over the No Child Left Behind Act, to name a few.

“It really is a tight window,” said Frank Macchiarola, who formerly served as both majority and minority staff director to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) when he helmed the Senate’s energy committee.

Beyond the tight timeframe, the appetite for more debate on energy policy may be weak. Dillon, the current Republican committee spokesman, noted, “Energy already had one bite out of the apple at the beginning of the year.” That was when the Senate spent its first month debating a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. It was promptly vetoed by President Obama.

Macchiarola, now an executive with America’s Natural Gas Alliance, called the amount of time the Senate had already spent on the Keystone bill “unusual.”

Now, with a packed floor schedule and energy already having received a chunk of Congress’ attention, the odds of putting the comprehensive energy bill on hold rises. The congressional discussions over government spending, transportation, and the Affordable Care Act are likely to extend into the final days of December.

The good news, according to ANGA President Marty Durbin, is that “you’ve got a bill that’s ready to go.” And not just any bill, but one with “a very strong bipartisan vote coming out of the committee,” he said in an in-person interview Tuesday.

The bad news for the bill’s proponents, Durbin said, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R–Ky.) commitment to an open floor process. Senators can offer, debate, and vote on amendments freely under McConnell’s policies, and that takes time.

But the energy bill, compared with other legislation, has made it through committee and enjoys a fair amount of bipartisan praise. McConnell prides himself on getting bills to the president’s desk, Macchiarola said, and this bill “seems like the kind of thing that would lend itself to a legislative victory.”

Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, is also holding out hope. “I want the Congress to surprise me. I want that to be the outcome,” she said.

But any hiccup could derail floor plans. There already is one brewing over an efficiency provision that would logjam the Department of Energy’s ability to regulate the home heating furnaces, Callahan said. Efforts are underway to broker the issue, but it’s not clear how they will turn out.

If the energy bill does get pushed until 2016, it would not necessarily seal its collapse. “A lot of people believe you can’t get an energy bill passed in an election year,” Callahan said. “I actually think that when Congress reconvenes, there will still be an opportunity to get this done.”

That’s because this is a legacy issue for leaders in both the House and Senate, according to Callahan. In the House, the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee recently passed its own version of a broad energy bill, which is narrower than the Senate version. Still, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) “wants a comprehensive energy bill in his name,” Callahan said.

Murkowski and Cantwell, for their part, have been among the rare committee leaders (along with the House energy chiefs) to negotiate and pass truly bipartisan energy bills. Callahan posited that the committee leaders’ commitment to these bills bodes well for the chances of Congress getting the measure done this year or next.

For now, timing for consideration of the energy package hinges on a host of unrelated issues. How they play out determines what happens with energy. “It’s out of our hands,” Dillon said.

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