GOP hoping for quick conference on tax overhaul bills

Source: Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Senate voted yesterday to formally launch conference talks with the House on tax reform, as Republicans look to quickly deliver a compromise bill to President Trump before Christmas.

The Senate voted 51-47 in favor of bicameral talks. The House moved earlier this week to do the same (E&E Daily, Dec. 5).

The White House wants negotiations wrapped up by Dec. 22, a timetable that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a conferee, said she was hopeful could be met.

Other conferees include Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.); Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas); GOP Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota; and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Democrats have yet to announce their own team.

Murkowski’s focus will be maintaining the Senate’s provision to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

She and other GOP conferees have been upbeat about the prospects for doing so, despite qualms expressed last week by a dozen House GOP moderates (E&E Daily, Dec. 1).

However, Murkowski may also be forced into a familiar role: defending the Strategic Petroleum Reserve from fiscal pressures.

She has repeatedly sounded warnings in recent years over Congress’ increasing tendency to sell oil from the reserve to pay for unrelated spending, saying revenue from such drawdowns should be limited to shoring up the dilapidated SPR facilities and for other “energy security” (E&E News PM, July 7).

The Senate’s tax bill allows the sale of 700 million barrels of SPR oil in fiscal 2026 and 2027, with sales ending once $600 million has been raised.

Those revenues are intended to cover the cost of provisions in the Senate bill to lift caps on federal offshore drilling revenues with Gulf of Mexico states.

Backers also want to fill an estimated $300 million shortfall of ANWR’s 10-year budget projections. Republicans had originally hoped drilling would help reduce the deficit by $1 billion.

Murkowski defended the proposed reserve drawdown this week, equating opening ANWR to “really allowing for a filling” of the SPR.

Consultancy ClearView Energy Partners this week said the SPR may be a tempting target for conferees if more revenues are needed to keep the final tax bill within budget limits.

That’s a distinct possibility, as reports yesterday indicated GOP leaders were considering raising the corporate rate from 20 percent to 22 percent, as they try to balance intraparty tensions over changes to the state and local deductions contained in each chamber’s bills.

But Murkowski said she was hopeful conferees would not attempt to further raid the SPR, noting the reserve is at its lowest level since 2004.

At least one House Republican conferee — Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan — has previously supported tapping the SPR for unrelated spending (E&E Daily, Nov. 29, 2016).

Upton replaced Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as a House tax conferee. While a reason was not given, Upton leads the panel’s Subcommittee on Energy, which has jurisdiction over the Energy Department, the SPR’s caretaker.