Senate bill limps on after Democrats’ filibuster

Source: Geof Koss and Hannah Hess, E&E reporters • Posted: Friday, February 5, 2016

Democrats today blocked a pair of procedural votes to end debate on the Senate’s bipartisan energy bill, buying time to continue negotiations over federal aid to help the town of Flint, Mich., recover from its lead-contaminated drinking water crisis.

The Senate rejected cloture on the substitute amendment to the bill, as well as the underlying bill (S. 2012), on 46-50 and 43-54 roll call votes, respectively.

However, immediately after the votes, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated that negotiations on the Flint situation would continue over the weekend.

Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will “work over the weekend on a path forward,” McConnell said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to salvage this important bipartisan legislation.”

While McConnell has already set the wheels in motion to debate a bill imposing sanctions on North Korea next week, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said he anticipated there could be room for a few more days of debate on the energy bill.

Today’s votes capped a day and a half of unusual drama surrounding the energy bill, after a debate that was moving along quite smoothly was snagged in the fight over Flint, with Republicans objecting to Democrats’ proposal to initially seek $600 million in aid for the town.

Murkowski today introduced an amendment that would make up to $550 million available, including $50 million immediately for the people of Flint. She asked for votes on that measure, and seven others, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) Flint amendment.

But Stabenow objected, preserving Democrats’ leverage over Republicans who want to see the energy package enacted to add to their list of bipartisan accomplishments going into the November elections.

Both sides continue to conduct negotiations on Flint but have struggled to find an offset to cover the cost of an amendment.

Hoeven said he spoke with numerous Democrats about Murkowski’s proposal during the votes and was guardedly optimistic an agreement could be reached.

“I think it’s moving in the right direction,” he told reporters. “From our side, I think it’s something that we’re willing to work with. I talked to a number of Democrats and said, ‘I think this is a serious effort to find a solution,’ and, generally, the response I got was they appreciate that and the dialogue is continuing. There is an active negotiation going on.”

However, tension erupted early this morning after Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave a blistering floor speech accusing Republicans of “abandoning the people of Flint.” Reid read previous quotes from GOP senators — including Majority Whip John Cornyn (Texas), as well as presidential contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — supporting disaster aid for their home states.

Cornyn said Democrats signaled that they are not interested in “solving the problem” and are just trying to score political points by rejecting Murkowski’s offer.

Asked whether the bill would come back next week, Cornyn said it would depend on how negotiations proceed.

“Maybe they will be able to break the impasse,” he told reporters after the vote.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) visited the Senate chamber this morning to help defuse the tension, telling Greenwire that Flint-related bills will be on the suspension calendar in that chamber next week.

Upton and Flint’s congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), unveiled a bill today that would elevate U.S. EPA’s authority in notifying communities of lead contamination in the drinking water. The legislation, which is similar to a bill introduced by Michigan’s senators, would also require the agency to create a plan for handling and improving information sharing between water utilities, states and consumers.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker contributed.