Conference fate rests with Senate Democrats

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2016

Whether or not the Senate launches the first conference committee on energy legislation in a decade is in the hands of Senate Democrats, who continue to express concerns with the House’s revised version.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Democrats say legislation the House passed before recess is laden with veto-bait and doesn’t bode well for efforts to reconcile the competing measures.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said he would have “real issues” with going to conference with the House on its current bill.

“I just think that what the House has done is not credible,” he told E&E Daily. “It’s like a primary election document, and so adults need to sit down at the table and work toward something that we can actually produce. And it’s very hard to get there from what they’ve initially put on the table.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), also on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed a similarly dim view of the House bill.

“I think we need to know what the parameters are going to be,” she said in an interview. “I’m working with Maria Cantwell and will support her judgment on that, but I certainly don’t support the House bill at all.”

Cantwell, the committee’s ranking member who co-wrote the Senate’s S. 2012 with Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), has criticized the House for throwing multiple bills that have drawn White House veto threats into the legislative mix (E&E Daily, May 25).

Democratic aides signaled the caucus appeared to be leaning toward rejecting a vote to go to conference, which would require 60 senators, absent some sort of compromise on how to handle the House provisions.

GOP aides say Democrats want “objectionable provisions taken off the table” before going to conference — a demand they say the Senate cannot impose on the lower chamber. Such issues should be worked out in conference, Republicans said.

A vote to go to conference would likely have to wait until the Senate finishes the defense authorization bill, so the two parties appear to have more time to discuss how a conference would unfold.

The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Illinois’ Dick Durbin, signaled the caucus had not had extensive discussions about the issue when asked by E&E Daily yesterday whether Democrats would vote against going to conference on the energy bills.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what’s in it.”

Murkowski, who would lead the conference, envisions running the bicameral committee in the same bipartisan manner she used to assemble her panel’s energy package.

An aide said she planned to “sequence” issues for the conference, starting with areas that are more likely to foster agreement.

Issues that appear unresolvable may simply be left out of the conference. Republicans note they are keenly aware that President Obama’s veto pen awaits anything the White House opposes.

At least one Senate Democrat, former Energy Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told E&E Daily he was open to going to conference.

“I’m going to have to talk to [Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] about it, but I think if you want to get a bill you bring the two bodies together,” he said. “Obviously there’s differences between the two bills — big differences. I want to talk to my colleagues about it.”

Wyden said, “I think there’s an opportunity to find common ground on a variety of measures that I think would be in the public interest and clearly there are some items that strike me as a bridge too far — in fact a bridge far too far.”

Wyden added that he plans to speak with fellow Democrats on “how they might want to proceed” but noted that “one body alone can’t enact a law.”