Angst over tax extenders may spill into senate energy floor debate

Source: By Geof Koss and Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporters • Posted: Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lingering discontent over last year’s collapse of clean energy tax negotiations may surface on the Senate floor next week, when the chamber moves to debate the first broad energy package in four years.

While the bipartisan energy bill unveiled yesterday is expected to be the Senate’s first order of business next week, the two parties do not yet have an agreement on how long the debate will continue or how many amendments will receive votes, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday.

That raises the possibility of a freewheeling debate, although Murkowski said she has spoken with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about trying to instill a “reasonable amendment process.”

“We want to try to do a bill. … Bills will have amendments,” she told E&E News yesterday. “We don’t want it to be unlimited, that will take days and weeks.”

The Senate will move to take a procedural vote on the motion to proceed Monday evening — a sign the chamber could not yet secure unanimous consent for the bill’s consideration.

Murkowski is trying to tamp down appetite for extended fights over amendments, noting the “extraordinary process” that produced the package, which she said includes provisions from more than 50 bills that have moved through her panel this Congress.

“I’d like to think that we’re going to be able to limit things to a minimum in terms of amendments,” she said.

Still, Democrats are expected to try to offer language related to clean energy tax incentives that were left out of the limited tax accord struck in December (E&E Daily, Dec. 19, 2019).

Enviro group backlash

In announcing the Sierra Club’s opposition to the Senate bill yesterday, the group’s legislative director, Melinda Pierce, called for senators to focus on clean energy tax breaks instead of the “small-bore proposals” in the legislation.

“We need action on deploying the proven clean energy technologies that are reducing emissions today,” she said in a statement. “The most direct way to do that would be advancing clean energy tax incentives for technologies including solar, on and off-shore wind, energy storage, and electric vehicles.”

Those comments were echoed by other mainstream environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, who both took issue with the bill’s provisions to support fossil fuels through natural gas exports and carbon capture research.

“We must instead focus on investing in research and development for challenging sectors to decarbonize and clean energy sources like wind and solar, and extend and expand tax incentives to support near-term deployment and job growth in clean energy industries,” said Matthew Davis, LCV’s legislative director.

Murkowski acknowledged continued unease over last year’s tax deal but noted that adding clean energy tax incentives to the energy bill would violate the Constitution’s requirement that revenue measures originate in the House.

“What I’m reminding people is, even if you support those, if you put them on this energy bill, you kill the energy bill, because it is stapled with a big, fat blue slip when it goes to the House,” she said, referencing the procedural hurdle that allows the House to bottle up bills that run afoul of the so-called origination clause of the Constitution. “There’s just no doubt about it.”

Murkowski said she anticipates there will be other opportunities to debate energy taxes. “I will absolutely work to help facilitate that,” she said.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told E&E News that he did not expect anything from his committee to join the energy package.

“It can’t be anything from my committee because it would be blue-slipped by Ways and Means,” Grassley said.

Building codes battle

The omission of voluntary building codes opposed by the National Association of Home Builders from the energy bill is another likely flashpoint that will emerge next week.

Supporters of the codes say that removing them would gut the largest emissions reductions from the legislation.

“As it stands, this plan misses the best opportunity on the table to cut greenhouse gas emissions while reducing costs for households and businesses,” Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said in a statement yesterday.

The building codes are supported by ENR ranking member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and a Democratic amendment to restore them is expected to surface during next week’s floor debate.

Should that fail, efficiency backers will look to House-Senate energy talks to restore the building codes provisions that originated in legislation authored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Similar building code language passed the Senate in 2016 as part of that year’s energy package.

House response

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of House companion legislation to the Portman-Shaheen bill, said this week that he intends to pass that bill with the building codes intact.

“I’d like to work with the homebuilders to get their support, but those make a real difference,” Welch told E&E News.

House Democrats have started to think about forming their own package to match the Senate effort. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, said earlier this month that plans were already under consideration about what a package would look like.

House Science, Space and Technology ranking member Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) issued a statement in support of the Murkowski-Manchin package.

His committee advanced many of the similar bipartisan measures through its ranks, although Lucas has his own bill to boost research and development funding on the earlier basis side of the process.

“Investing in basic research has already led to breakthrough technologies that have lowered energy costs and made the U.S. the world leader in emissions reductions,” Lucas said. “We’re hoping Democrats will work across the aisle with us to make real progress.”