Senate Hopes to Finish Energy Bill, but Hurdles Remain

Senate leaders vowed Tuesday to finish a major energy bill this week, but simultaneously struggled to find common ground on an amendment that would help Flint, Mich., recover from its recent water crisis.

The amendment, introduced last Thursday by Michigan Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, would match up to $400 million in state spending on water infrastructure in Flint, where dangerously high levels of lead have been detected in the blood of children. It would also dole out $200 million over 10 years to create a “Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure” in Flint.

Last week, Peters said he, Stabenow and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) were working on a way to cover the $600 million in spending. Murkowski had said she wouldn’t consider any amendments that increase spending without including matching offsets. On Tuesday, Stabenow said the group was “very close” to reaching an agreement.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said discussions among Republicans centered on how to keep federal involvement somewhat neutral on the issue and minimize the influence of the Environmental Protection Agency. “There has been not been an effort to give EPA more to do,” he said, hinting at the GOP’s less than stellar view of the agency.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) criticized the Flint proposal for spending too much money and for turning to the federal government for what he called “local and state problems.”

“I think it would be a mistake, speaking for myself personally, to authorize a $1 billion earmark just because the Democrats are playing politics with this at the expense of the people in Flint, who we are all interested in helping,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn added that Michigan’s state government has already spent $40 million on Flint and the EPA has spent $80 million. And he didn’t express any optimism that his concerns would be worked out, saying only that Stabenow, Peters and Murkowski “haven’t reached a conclusion yet.”

Murkowski was similarly cautious in appraising the situation.

“All I can tell you at this point in time is that discussions are ongoing, and that’s about the extent of what I can share on where we are right now,” she said in a Tuesday press conference.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) took issue with Cornyn’s description of the money as an “earmark,” and said the situation was more like the federal government’s response to natural disasters.

“I wonder where he was the last time Texas had tornadoes or hurricanes,” Durbin said.

Despite the heated rhetoric, if senators find common ground on the Flint amendment, the Senate could be on its way to passing the first major energy bill since 2007. NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the bill could pass this week as long as “we get some Democratic cooperation, and we’ve had it so far.”

Murkowski is requiring 60 votes for controversial amendments to be placed on the bill, which could thin out the field of controversial measures. Six amendments failed Tuesday, including Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) proposal to limit the president’s authority to establish national monuments, which President Obama has used aggressively to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of land from development.

The Senate also passed two noncontroversial amendments by voice vote: an amendment by Durbin to increase funding for the Office of Science of the Department of Energy, and one from Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) establishing a conservation incentives landowner education program.

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