Energy-water bill likely to move this week

Source: George Cahlink, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A legislative path appears to have emerged for passing the stalled fiscal 2017 energy and water spending bill in the Senate later this week.

The move after weeks of failed efforts would be a victory for Republican leaders who have promised to move most, if not all, of the fiscal 2017 spending bills by midsummer. It would also signal that a bipartisan budget deal reached last year that set overall spending levels for this year is holding.

The test of the precarious path will come when the Senate holds a cloture vote no later than tomorrow morning to dispose of a contentious Iran amendment that has held up the appropriations bill for the past few weeks. Sixty votes would be required to move ahead with the amendment, an unlikely threshold given solid opposition from the chamber’s 44 Democrats. Once the amendment is defeated, the Senate could move toward passage of the broader bill.

The move came after the Senate last evening failed for the third time to move toward final passage of the spending bill. If cloture had been invoked on the underlying bill, it would have allowed the Iran amendment to be attached by a simple majority vote.

By filing for cloture on the amendment last evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is conceding he does not have the votes to overcome the Democratic filibuster on the Iran provision and does not want to risk a permanent delay. McConnell likely sees it as only as temporary setback that he’ll accept with hopes of passing the first spending bill in the Senate by the end of the week — and keeping the appropriations process on track.

The bill — and broader appropriations process — has been held up over an amendment offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would bar the United States from buying heavy water, a component used in nuclear reactors, from Iran. Democrats say it would undermine the Obama administration’s Iranian nuclear deal, while Republicans counter that it’s fair game on a bill that deals with nuclear issues.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, called Cotton’s proposal a “sincere amendment” but said he would vote against cloture on it. Arguing that the United States should buy the water, Alexander also said he felt the policy question should not be dealt with on appropriations bills.

“These are complex national security issues that ought not to be decided here,” he said.

Alexander’s remarks likely will be echoed by other senior appropriators and more moderate Republicans who are eager to make good on a promise that they can move bills in an election year. It also is a message to more conservative and junior senators, like Cotton, that they should avoid attaching poison-pill provisions to spending bills.

Alexander added negotiations are underway that could allow action to wrap up on the bill as early as tomorrow. He noted it would be the first time since 2009 that the Senate has passed a stand-alone energy-water spending bill.

“We got a little more work to do,” Alexander added.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the energy-water panel, said she hoped the cloture vote would settle the issue and allow the broader bill to pass. Like Alexander, she said the Iran amendment was the only unresolved issue on the bill.

“We’ll see what the will of the Senate is,” she said.