Senate returns to Supreme Court drama, unfinished energy bill

Source: George Cahlink, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, April 4, 2016

The Senate returns from spring break today for a busy four-week stretch that will see continued negotiations over moving energy reform legislation and aid package for Flint, Mich.

Policy discussions will be punctuated by the highly partisan fight over the Supreme Court nominee and anxious appropriators who are due to get their spending bill allocations by the middle of the month. Here’s what to watch for:

Supreme fight

Senate Democrats and President Obama will continue this week to press Republicans to hold hearings and a confirmation vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. But so far, GOP opposition to both actions remains intact.

Obama will be in Chicago on Thursday to make the case for Garland. Expect Senate Democrats to tout polls showing voters favor hearings. They will likely highlight the willingness of a handful of Republican senators to at least meet with Garland as he makes courtesy calls on Capitol Hill.

“Republicans got an earful back home, and try as they might to escape this issue, their constituents weren’t going to let them,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Friday in a preview of a message Democrats will make this week (Greenwire, April 1).

Republicans though, have shown no signs of moving ahead with even a hearing. So far, only a handful of the chamber’s 54 GOP members have even scheduled a meeting with Garland. Most say they don’t want one.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who supports a Senate vote on the nominee, will meet with him tomorrow, but she has yet to say whether she would back him.

Another Republican, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, will meet with Garland the same day, but he will likely use the meeting to make the case for why the next president should pick the court nominee.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) initially said filling the high court vacancy should wait until there is a new president but now says she will meet with Garland. Their session has yet to be scheduled.

Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is fighting for re-election in a competitive state, has also agreed to meet with Garland, according to the Associated Press.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who is running for a seventh term in November, has not ruled out meeting Garland. He said he’ll decide this week after a phone call with the federal appeals court judge.

If GOP opposition to moving forward with the nomination holds, Grassley believes Senate Democrats will eventually move to force a symbolic floor vote on Garland.

Under Senate rules, the minority party can force the Senate to vote to discharge a nominee from committee. However, a simple majority can overcome the motion to discharge.

That vote, certain to fail in the GOP-controlled chamber, would likely be weeks away. For now, Democrats seem intent on trying to ratchet up the pressure on Republicans to hold hearings.

Flint aid package

Shortly before recess, Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters took to the floor to blast Utah Republican Mike Lee for holding up a $220 million aid package for Flint, Mich., and other cities with contaminated drinking water.

“It seems like we go round and round and round and round. We need to stop and have a vote,” Stabenow said before the Senate adjourned last month.

Lee did not directly respond to the criticism, but his spokesman confirmed Friday that he still has a legislative hold on the Flint package.

A hold is a Senate legislative tool that allows any senator to block legislation from coming to the floor. Supporters can overcome the hold by convincing 60 senators to vote for cloture.

Lee remains concerned about spending offsets for the Flint aid. Both sides have agreed to pay for the package by cutting the Energy Department’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, but the time frame for making the reductions remains in conflict.

Some GOP leaders who worry that Democrats will try to attach the aid to other bills and will continue to charge Republicans with ignoring the needs of the lead-ravaged city may support cloture.

Backers of Flint also worry that their window for action might be closing. They had hoped to use the spotlight of last month’s presidential primary in Michigan to force action. With that chance lost, some Democrats now are eyeing providing the funds as part of the upcoming fiscal 2017 spending bills.

Energy bill

Senate action on broad energy legislation has become intertwined with the Flint aid, much to the chagrin of the bill’s defenders.

Senate leaders were close to a deal last month to move forward on the energy bill with about three dozen amendments. But the action was contingent on the chamber first taking up the Flint measure.

Senate GOP leaders have since floated the idea of separating the energy package from the Flint aid, and then filing for cloture on it.

Murkowski, who authored the bill as Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman, said last month that the procedural move was “clearly an option,” but she worries that the reform bill could still stall down the line without an agreement on amendments.

While negotiators have not disclosed all the new potential amendments to the energy bill, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has said he’ll hold up the legislation to block consideration of an amendment to expand revenue sharing from offshore drilling.

Murkowski, who has labored to move the package since February, knows that time may not be her ally. By May, the Senate is likely to turn to spending bills that will eat up much of the chamber’s limited legislative calendar before the elections.

If Congress hopes to pass an energy bill this year, its best hope may be in a post-election lame-duck session, but both chambers would need to pass their own versions first. The House passed its own narrower version late last year.

Spending bills

Appropriators are due to get their top-line allocations for the 12 annual spending bills by April 15. They already know they won’t be getting much more money than last year.

The Senate has agreed to follow the overall discretionary level of $1.07 trillion for fiscal 2017 set by last year’s budget deal, which would be a $3 billion increase over current spending.

The modest increase all but guarantees that most departments and agencies will be flat-funded for the coming year. It also means that White House proposals for big increases for the Energy Department to develop new clean-energy technologies and for U.S. EPA to advance climate change priorities won’t happen this year.

“We are going to have to make some hard decisions this year to make sure the highest priorities are funded,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said recently.

No markups have yet been scheduled for any of the spending bills, but those could come quickly once subcommittees get their individual allocations.

Senate GOP leaders have said they hope to spend May, June and July moving individual spending bills for the first time in years. For now, Democrats say they are open to that plan, but potentially partisan policy riders could still scuttle progress.