Procedural knots tie up ANWR, reform push

Source: Geof Koss and Kellie Lunney, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, December 1, 2017

Senate Republicans last night were forced to punt on their plans to pass a broad tax overhaul and instead scrambled to sort out parliamentary hurdles that also ensnared the push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

Senators will convene this morning to try again on their tax legislation, after hopes for passage were dashed last night as Republicans struggled to comply with strict rules that govern the budget reconciliation process they are using to pass the bill — and open ANWR to drilling — by a simple majority vote.

Under the so-called Byrd rule, provisions of the bill must have a direct budgetary impact or are subject to the usual 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) yesterday was forced to revise the ANWR provisions that her committee contributed after the Senate parliamentarian ruled part of the bill ran afoul of the Byrd rule.

Murkowski said a “curative amendment” was ready to fix the problem, which she blamed on byzantine requirements.

“Every time you change a word when you’re dealing with reconciliation it can have implications on the score,” she told reporters.

“So when the parliamentarian says ‘you may want to adjust this,’ you adjust it and then you’ve got to send it back to [the Congressional Budget Office] for yet another score and it moves around,” she said. “So making sure that everything was in alignment was what we needed to do, and we have done it and we’re ready to go.”

She declined to describe in detail what the issue was but acknowledged that tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would fill a revenue shortfall that was rumored to be in excess of $300 million.

“We do have the ability to tap into more of the SPR to deal with some of the scoring considerations that we were dealing with,” Murkowski told E&E News.

She has fiercely opposed the use of SPR sales for non-energy related spending in recent years but noted yesterday that reserve sales were already in the ANWR bill that her panel contributed to the tax bill — as a pay-for to help cover the cost of provisions to increase federal offshore drilling revenues in the Gulf of Mexico.

While Murkowski appeared confident that the ANWR hurdle had been cleared, environmentalists charged that her bill no longer met the $1 billion deficit reduction target her committee was tasked with finding to pay for the tax overhaul.

“This last-minute fire drill is just another sign that adding the controversial Arctic refuge rider does not belong in a chaotic, dysfunctional and deeply unpopular tax reform effort,” said Alaska Wilderness League Executive Director Adam Kolton.

However, Senate Republicans last night faced a far bigger headache: The parliamentarian ruled that efforts to include a “trigger” in the bill — a demand made by deficit hawks earlier to bake-in future tax hikes if economic growth estimates don’t pan out — also violated the Byrd rule.

As a result, Republicans last night were searching for hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues to satisfy the pledge made to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) earlier this week.

Instead of the expected amendment “vote-a-rama” and final passage, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was forced to punt debate to this morning.

ANWR angst

Even as Senate Republicans labored to steady their faltering tax push, there were signs of new trouble for ANWR on the other side of the Capitol.

Led by Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a dozen House Republicans yesterday penned a letter to McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressing concerns “with any proposal that would implement an oil and gas leasing program” in ANWR.

The reserve “stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring natural legacy,” wrote the lawmakers, including Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), who like Reichert, are members of the Ways and Means Committee.

The House GOP objections are notable in that similar concerns by moderate Republicans helped tank a comparable effort to open ANWR in 2005.

The letter also follows a similar missive sent to congressional leaders earlier this week from high-ranking federal officials from past Republican administrations.

“Decisions regarding oil and gas exploration should be made in the context of a bi-partisan, broadly supported national energy policy that takes account of the need to reliably fuel economic prosperity while addressing environmental and national security challenges,” wrote William Ruckelshaus, who led EPA under Presidents Nixon and Reagan; William Reilly, President George H.W. Bush’s EPA chief; and Ted Roosevelt IV, the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt; and others.

Senate Democrats, who are expected to offer an amendment to strip the ANWR provision from the tax bill, rallied outside the Capitol with environmentalists to decry the drilling push.

“It’s not about drilling for oil, it’s about drilling for votes,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who noted that legislation he authored with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to make ANWR’s coastal plain wilderness had secured 41 votes — enough to sustain a filibuster under the Senate’s normal rules.

“With our bill’s 41st co-sponsor, it could not be more clear that we should not open up the Arctic refuge to drilling,” Bennet said. “This critical decision affecting our public lands and water deserves a real process and full debate.”

Murkowski took to the Senate floor last night to defend her provision, which she said would reap economic benefits for Alaska and the country without harming the environment.

“We will not sacrifice wildlife or the environment for the sake of development, but we also recognize that this is not the choice we face here,” she said, citing advances in technology over the last 40 years that would “dramatically reduce the footprint of development.”

Murkowski also emphasized that the bill’s ANWR language does not circumvent the environmental review process through the National Environmental Policy Act or sidestep consultation with tribes.

“We know that there’s no one that cares more about our place, these spaces, than those who call it home,” Murkowski said, drawing some applause in the chamber from fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan. “We love this place, and we will not risk its future for the sake of development, but again, we know that’s not the case here.”

While Murkowski helped vote down her GOP colleagues’ earlier attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, she is not among the undecided Republicans this time around, even though the underlying bill repeals the health care law’s individual mandate.

“I support this legislation, and I would encourage every member to follow,” she said.