Senate faces long list of amendments; House may fall in line

Source: Jason Plautz • E&E • Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012

After weeks of wrangling over their surface transportation reauthorization bill, the Senate this afternoon is set to start working through a list of 30 amendments that contains a meaty assortment of energy measures.

The Senate is scheduled to start voting at about 2:15 this afternoon on a negotiated list of 30 amendments that will include language on the Keystone XL pipeline, U.S. EPA clean air rules, energy tax extenders and expanded offshore drilling. The set of amendments includes 18 germane amendments and 12 nongermane ones, plus a manager’s amendment that includes 37 noncontroversial ones from both sides.

With a March 31 deadline rapidly approaching, Democrats say they’d like to move the two-year, $109 billion transportation bill as soon as possible. Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill late this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was “extremely difficult to get to the point where we are now.”

“This is an important piece of legislation,” said the Nevada Democrat. “What a shame it’s taken so long to get to the Senate floor.”

Last night’s deal ends more than a week of debate over how many — and which — amendments would be heard on the bill and sets up a final vote as early as next week. Given the lengthy list of amendments, it’s likely the votes will slip past today. Speaking on the Senate floor this morning, the majority leader told members to expect votes Friday, and his office said it was likely they would continue until Tuesday.

The House may also be taking up the Senate’s measure, according to Speaker John Boehner’s office. House Republican leaders are continuing to try to whip up support for a competing five-year bill, but it has been an uphill battle trying to wrangle conservatives and moderate Republicans to embrace the lengthy and complicated legislation.

According to Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, the Senate bill will be the House’s option “unless we coalesce around an alternative.”

Speaking yesterday, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that once a deal was in place, she saw final passage coming in five to seven legislative days. On the floor this morning, Boxer lamented the number of nonrelated amendments on the bill but said that, on the core bill, there was “common ground with many of our Republican friends.”

Already one amendment to the bill — concerning health insurance coverage for contraceptives — has been heard and rejected, and two cloture motions to end debate fell without much surprise. An initial cloture vote on the bill got 85 yeas, and observers say they expect a final bill to pass once the amendments are fully dealt with.

Boiler MACT, drilling on tap

The list of nongermane amendments includes a number of controversial measures, including the Keystone XL pipeline (see related story), a measure that would send money from the Deepwater Horizon spill settlement to Gulf Coast states (see related story) and one concerning flights over the Grand Canyon (see related story). The nongermane amendments will require a 60-vote threshold to pass.

Another political fight is expected over an amendment by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would pull the plug on the Boiler MACT rule and probably prevent EPA from crafting an equally stringent regulation later. It would also remove all deadlines for implementation of the rule.

The amendment faces long odds — its top Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) withdrew his support earlier this week, and many other Democrats say they have reservations about language to limit EPA controls on mercury and other toxics. Still, it is likely to pick up some support from Senate Democrats, including Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Mary Landrieu (La.).

Environmental and industry groups have already weighed in on the measure, with environmental groups warning that the language would mean dirtier air that carries more health complications. Industry groups, however, want the amendment to go through because they say the EPA rules place too much of a burden on businesses (E&E Daily, March 8).

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) also won a vote for her proposal to extend more than a dozen energy tax benefits, including the production credit for wind and solar power that her party failed to attach to last month’s payroll tax cut deal despite support from several influential Republicans and an intense lobbying campaign by renewables groups (E&ENews PM, Feb. 16). 

Stabenow’s amendment would raise up the production credit through 2013, as well as a Treasury Department renewable-power grant program known as 1603 that hemorrhaged support in the wake of the bankruptcy of government-backed solar firm Solyndra. The measure also would extend tax incentives for biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol infrastructure, electric vehicles and related alternative fuel infrastructure, and energy-efficient homes and buildings.

Lobbying on the Stabenow amendment intensified this morning, with Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen writing to senators that it is “vital to the ongoing development of the domestic ethanol industry and commercialization of the advanced and cellulosic ethanol industry.” 

The conservative group Heritage Action for America gave voice to opponents who slam the proposal as a continuation of what it views as market-distorting energy subsidies, likening the amendment to “an extension of the 2009 stimulus … which promised to keep unemployment under 8 percent and jump-start a new era of green technology.” 

A Republican alternative to the Stabenow plan, from Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), would retroactively extend a much smaller group of tax credits that expired at the end of 2011, including the research and development benefit. Roberts’ plan would not affect the wind and solar production tax credit and the 1603 program, while paying for the extension by extending the current pay freeze for federal employees and approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

Another energy-tax-related amendment that won a vote today, authored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), mirrors legislation first offered last year that would roll back a raft of benefits for oil, gas, renewables, nuclear power and biofuels (E&ENews PM, Nov. 3, 2011). That bill would target two of the smaller oil and gas credits that the Obama administration has long pushed to repeal, matching its tax rollbacks with a corresponding reduction in the corporate tax rate to make the overall measure revenue-neutral.

The list of amendments also includes a bipartisan measure led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) that would offer incentives for the purchase and manufacturing of natural gas vehicles. The NAT GAS Act would also include incentives for natural gas fueling infrastructure in a bid to offer a boost to the cleaner fuel.

However, conservative groups hate the incentive language and torpedoed a similar effort in the House last year. Heritage Action for America sent out a notice this morning urging senators to vote against the amendment, saying that the subsidies are unnecessary and that automakers are already working to create a natural gas market “without the heavy hand of government picking winners and losers.”

Supporters say the bill’s language could displace some 20 billion gallons of gasoline, while easily boosting the number of natural gas vehicles on the roads. However, others have questioned the effort, saying there should be across-the-board incentives for all alternative fuels.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) also offered up language that would set up the adoption of a George W. Bush administration plan to allow oil and gas leasing off the coasts of California, Virginia and several other states. Vitter’s language would allow 10 lease sales in areas that had been under executive or congressional moratorium starting in 2013.

Vitter has said the language would offer a greater supply of fuel at a time when gas prices are rising. It also sets up a potentially politically difficult vote for Democrats who have opposed expanded drilling in some states; even some pro-drilling Democrats were on the fence about the specific Vitter language (E&E Daily, March 7).

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proposed an amendment that would direct the Office of Management and Budget to eliminate programs identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report that highlights the government’s duplicative programs. The popular report — and an earlier version from last year — lists dozens of programs that could be consolidated, including the 14 grant and loan programs to curb vehicles’ diesel emissions at EPA and the departments of Energy and Transportation (E&E Daily, Feb. 28).

Coburn’s amendment would direct OMB to determine the savings at each agency if the GAO recommendations are enacted and to rescind that money from their accounts. It would require OMB to take action where it could and ask Congress for any necessary legislative action.

The Senate will also vote on an amendment by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that would provide a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program, which for the past decade has provided hundreds of millions of dollars annually to counties to help fund schools, roads and forest restoration as historic revenues from federal timber sales declined.

The proposal, which will require a 60-vote threshold, would also extend a similar program known as “Payments in Lieu of Taxes,” which compensates counties that contain large tracts of nontaxable federal lands. The proposal is fully paid for, a Baucus aide said.

“These investments are rightfully due to rural counties that are home to large areas of federal lands as part of their compact with the federal government, and now is not the time to pull the rug out from under them,” Baucus said this morning in an emailed statement. “My amendment will honor our commitment to rural America, make sure our communities can keep schools warm, and keep the lights on at the county road department all without adding a dime to the federal deficit.”

The Baucus proposal comes as Republicans in the House are instead proposing a vast increase in timber harvests on national forests to replenish county coffers. Today’s one-year extension may be more amenable to House leaders, who have likened SRS to welfare for the West and have opposed a longer-term extension.

Gas tax, environmental reviews

The 18 germane amendments on the bill, which face only an up-or-down vote, cover a slew of issues from gas tax funding to agriculture transportation. A number of those are expected to be controversial, including one from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would exempt roads and bridges being reconstructed after emergencies from standard environmental reviews. Environmentalists say the amendment is unnecessary because relevant waivers already exist and because it would only further weaken the environmental review program.

Boxer filed a sense of the Senate measure saying federal agencies should expedite reviews after emergencies.

A number of amendments would target the transportation funding stream, including one from Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) that would only distribute funds to states based on how much they contribute to the federal gas tax, replacing the current apportionment system.

Another from DeMint would devolve federal funding and give more authority to the states to determine how to spend on highways and transit. And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) offered a similar one that would allow states to opt out of federal aid for highways and mass transit programs and instead spend their own gas tax money. One from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) would place limits on federal expenditures.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) offered up language that would allow farmers to transport their products across state lines to processing facilities. And another agriculture amendment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) would set restrictions for drivers transporting agricultural products.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has an amendment that would give more flexibility to small transit systems for urban areas.

Other amendments on the bill include one from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) that would boost Buy America requirements, one from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on privatizing highways, one from Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) expanding tolling pilot programs and another from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would restrict some new tolling.