Senate to pass energy and water bill, avoid tough amendments

Source: George Cahlink, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Senate is expected to approve the $37.5 billion energy and water spending bill later this morning, though the upper chamber will likely dodge contentious amendments on climate change and banning the purchase of heavy water from Iran.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday evening announced a cloture vote would be held at 11 a.m. today to limit debate on the measure and move to final passage. Invoking cloture would require 60 votes, a threshold likely to be reached for the generally bipartisan bill.

Earlier yesterday, the Senate backed two relatively benign amendments boosting wind energy and Western water resources (Greenwire, April 26).

There were expectations that more amendment votes would come, but McConnell adjourned the Senate without any agreements for voting on more amendments.

A late push by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for a vote on a partisan amendment filed yesterday to ban the United States from buying heavy water from Iran seems to have fallen short.

The Energy Department announced Friday that it would spend $8.6 million to buy 32 tons of heavy water from Iran. The liquid is used in nuclear reactors, but Republicans have criticized the purchase as they have the larger nuclear deal with Iran that would permit the heavy water purchase.

“Regrettably, it’s become difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to President Obama sidling up to Iran. It seems the president will go to any lengths to protect his nuclear deal,” Cotton said in introducing the amendment.

The White House defended the purchase, saying it comes as Iran has been acting to reduce its nuclear stockpile. It also mocked Cotton, who last year led a GOP effort to write to Iranian leaders to say the next president might not enforce the agreement, by suggesting that he “write another letter to the supreme leader” over the heavy water sale.

It is also now unlikely there will be a vote on a bipartisan amendment that says climate change is real and that “human activity contributes to climate change” (E&ENews PM, April 22).

McConnell yesterday moved forward with procedural maneuvers for bringing up the transportation spending bill to the floor. Lawmakers could begin debating it after the energy and water measure passes.

Zika supplemental

Senate negotiators, meanwhile, said they are making headway on what’s expected to be a $1 billion-plus emergency spending bill for combating the Zika virus.

“I think there is general willingness from the Senate side to move forward in the foreseeable future,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, who is the GOP’s leader on bipartisan Zika talks.

Senate Democrats back more Zika funding, too, but urged Republicans not to leave for a weeklong break Friday until it’s been passed.

They suggested that conservative calls for limiting spending are holding up quick action.

“Republicans are tied in a knot and don’t know what to do. So their response has amounted to telling people to buy fly swatters and bug spray,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Blunt acknowledged he does not expect a deal this week. He also said the measure could be attached to an upcoming appropriations bill to help speed its route to the president’s desk.

One such measure is the transportation spending bill. If a Zika package were attached, it could help further bolster the usually bipartisan transportation measure in the Senate, though it could complicate the bill’s path in the House, where there is conservative resistance to a large expenditure to fight the virus.

“I do believe the best place to deal with this is in the appropriations process,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters yesterday. But, the lawmaker said, he believes the administration already has enough unobligated dollars it can move from other accounts to address Zika through at least the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.

McCarthy said it was too soon to say if the proposal would require offsets, saying he first needed more details about how any funds would be spent by the administration.

While supplemental spending bills have a history of attracting funding for a range of issues, Democrats say they no longer will press to add aid for the city of Flint, Mich., to the Zika legislation. They say funding for Flint will be considered as part of a broader renewal of the Water Resources Development Act unveiled yesterday (Greenwire, April 26).

Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.