‘A lot of talking’ ahead for conferees — Cantwell

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The top two senators who will lead energy negotiations with the House signaled yesterday they plan to make up for lost time after overcoming weeks of hesitation that delayed the formal conference process.

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said they were ready to dig into the substance of the chambers’ competing bills, after lengthy talks over the conference process resulted in a 84-3 vote to formally launch talks (E&ENews PM, July 12).

“I think it’s fair to say just leading up to today, my staff has been engaged in a lot of work, just making sure that all of the preliminary stuff is done, so once we are officially in conference and conferees have been named, we start sitting down,” Murkowski told E&E Daily before the vote. “We are not going to let any moss grow under our feet here.”

Cantwell predicted “a lot of talking” among staff and members over the seven-week summer recess that starts at the end of this week, telling E&E Daily after the vote that she was en route to her office to meet with members on the energy bill.

Yesterday’s vote came after Murkowski and Cantwell spent weeks talking with their respective House counterparts on the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees, discussions that stemmed from Democrats’ concerns with multiple provisions in the House’s revised package that had drawn veto threats from the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that Murkowski had committed to siding with Cantwell on the final product, which brought reluctant Senate Democrats to support the conference, despite strong objections from the environmental community.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a close ally of environmentalists and ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that she voted to go to conference because of her confidence in Cantwell.

“I trust Maria,” Boxer said in an interview. “Maria said she’s going to work closely with the Republican leadership in the Senate and that she’s going to protect what we did.”

Senators from both parties expressed optimism for the conference process, saying they were satisfied with the assurances that led to yesterday’s vote.

“We feel like we have the basis for coming out with a good bill, so we’ll see,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), an energy panel member who in recent weeks has been pessimistic about a conference.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who also sits on the energy committee, said he was “relatively optimistic” for the conference prospects.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), was similarly upbeat, noting that the Senate bill contains provisions that have broad support, including grid reliability, efficiency and pipeline permitting. “I feel good about it,” she said of the conference.

Having spent 14 years in the House, Capito also said the Senate bill’s more narrow focus may be helpful as well. “I think that’s always better in terms of trying to get it across the finish line,” she told E&E Daily.

Still, there’s plenty of hurdles ahead for the conference, including an abbreviated legislative calendar cut short by the election year and major policy differences between the two chambers’ packages (E&E Daily, April 26).

Despite the tough calendar, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a conferee, said yesterday the vote to go to conference gives “breathing room and an opportunity to try to get there.”

On policy, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) yesterday reiterated his opposition to the permanent reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is included in the Senate’s bill, noting the program is already authorized through 2018 under last year’s omnibus spending agreement.

“If the Senate wants to talk about LWCF, there’s got to be some reform element to it,” Bishop told E&E Daily. “We can’t just continue on with this. The program is used right now to hurt people. It’s got to be used to help people, and that means there’s got to be some reform to it.”

There’s also major differences on efficiency in both bills, although the Alliance to Save Energy yesterday noted that several conferees — including Murkowski, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — are honorary members of its board.

While industry groups lauded the move to launch conference talks, environmentalists remain less than enthused over the prospects.

“While there is talk of removing the most troubling, toxic elements of the House and Senate-passed energy bills, it is clear that any successful conference would need to dramatically improve the current proposals,” said Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce in a statement.

“Among the worst provisions in the current legislation are those which claim that burning forests is ‘carbon neutral,’ expedite LNG exports, block energy efficiency standards, repeal federal building sustainability measures and waive the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act at hydropower dams,” she said.

Another wild card in the conference is the inclusion of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as a conferee.

Sanders, who yesterday dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, has attained an almost rock star status in Democratic circles and is capable of turning out his legion of supporters to press his preferred policies. For instance, Sanders was able to install climate activist Bill McKibben on the Democratic Party’s platform committee (E&E Daily, May 24).

But the choice of Sanders — who opposed the bill in committee — as a conferee appears to have been driven by his seniority on the Energy committee, rather than an effort to complicate the process. Sanders is third in line in seniority on the panel, behind Cantwell and Wyden.

Murkowski noted that Reid submitted the Democratic nominees and appeared unfazed by Sanders’ inclusion.

“You take what you get and you work with it,” she said. “I am just happy that we’re going to conference.”

Reporters Hannah Hess and Nick Sobczyk contributed.