House Democrats demand infrastructure funding in reform bill

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 9, 2016

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) is linking his support for any compromise energy bill to the inclusion of appropriated dollars for energy infrastructure improvements, a politically steep demand in the current spending environment.

Pallone outlined the request yesterday during his opening statement at the first meeting of the House-Senate conference committee working to reconcile the competing energy bills.

He listed “infrastructure investment and modernization” as one of three “essential components” a final bill must contain (Greenwire, Sept. 8).

“Today, much of our energy infrastructure is aging, rooted in the past, and doesn’t really serve our current and future energy needs,” he told colleagues.

“A final product should focus on modernizing our infrastructure and reducing its vulnerabilities to extreme weather and attacks from those seeking to do us harm,” he said. “It should also facilitate the deployment of smarter electric grids that support more distributed and renewable energy generation.”

It’s not a new position for Pallone, whose home state was slammed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, necessitating what eventually became a $50 billion recovery package to help repair damaged infrastructure throughout the Northeast.

During the committee markup of the House bill, H.R. 8, last fall, Pallone denounced Republicans for walking away from a proposal to include $5 billion to modernize the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and upgrade the electric grid and pipeline networks (E&E Daily, Oct. 1, 2015).

At the time, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who retired from the House this week, said there was $5 billion “set aside” for infrastructure but that Democrats had refused to compromise on other outstanding issues. The bill eventually passed the House with the support of just a handful of Democrats.

A committee Democratic aide yesterday said Pallone will make a “strong push” for “guaranteed” infrastructure funding in the final energy bill, but was unclear if there was a specific dollar amount under discussion.

It’s also unclear where the money would come from. While Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) last year included about $9 billion in mandatory funding for a medical innovation bill, H.R. 6, paid for by tapping the SPR, a subsequent rush to sell the reserve’s oil to pay for other federal programs has stretched its limits.

Last year’s budget deal created a $2 billion Energy Security and Infrastructure Modernization Fund for the SPR, which the White House is now seeking permission from Congress to actually fund (Greenwire, Sept. 7).

Pressed on Pallone’s demand, Upton yesterday was at a loss for what a potential compromise could look like, given the budget constraints.

“I don’t think we’re going mandatory spending,” he told E&E Daily. “There’s no room within the caps to do that.” But he added that direct discussions among members will begin in earnest next week.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) acknowledged that infrastructure spending was a “priority” for House Democrats during debate on the chamber’s bill, but was “not reflected in the final product.”

“We will work through that as an issue just as we move through the other issues,” she told E&E Daily yesterday.

Other House Democrats on the conference committee yesterday similarly linked support for a possible compromise to infrastructure spending, including Democratic Reps. John Sarbanes of Maryland and Bobby Rush of Illinois, the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

Rush told E&E Daily that he won’t be satisfied with authorized funds for workforce development, a priority that he helped craft in the House bill.

“I want to see appropriations,” he said. “That would make me really happy. We’re looking for a minimum of $20 million for workforce development.”

Pointing fingers

While members of both parties yesterday expressed a willingness to work toward agreement, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) suggested that Democrats would be to blame if the effort collapses.

“It is widely believed that there are some Democrats in the Senate, as well as the House, that are going to try to delay reaching an agreement until after the election or perhaps until the next Congress,” he said during his opening statement.

“So members have to decide: Do we want to reach an agreement or not? If you do, we can get it done. We can get a conference report to the president’s desk in short order.”

Barrasso also warned Democrats that if a deal isn’t reached, “do not assume that this opportunity or this offer will be available in the next Congress.”

Pressed on Barrasso’s comments after the conference, Murkowski said “he was speaking the obvious.” She told reporters, “Everybody knows that if you have legislation that is in process in one legislative Congress when that Congress comes to an end … that the work begins anew.”

She said, “A new energy bill needs to be laid down. It’s not just like we can just pick up the conversation where we leave it when we adjourn sine die. You will basically be starting over.”

Noting that she and Cantwell have been working for more than 18 months to get to the current point, she added: “If we don’t finish it this year we start over, and it will be two years before we have another opportunity to have an energy bill in conference.”