Senators look to make progress on energy, spending

Source: Geof Koss and George Cahlink, E&E reporters • Posted: Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Senate negotiators will continue talks on a possible conference with the House on energy legislation this week, along with pressing forward on spending legislation and Puerto Rico relief.

Senate Republican leaders are still hoping to complete as many spending bills as possible before the long summer recess. And energy bill boosters see the measure as a potential win during an election year. But gun control debates and passing legislation to shore up Puerto Rico’s finances are stressing an already stretched calendar.

Last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said key lawmakers on energy and natural resources issues had made “good progress” after their Tuesday talk.

Cantwell outlined a number of outstanding issues the group was wrestling with (Greenwire, June 22). Non-energy issues are generating the most disagreement.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion stemmed from issues within the jurisdiction of the House Natural Resources Committee, including drought, wildfire and riders related to the National Environmental Policy Act, Cantwell said.

The drought provisions are “very problematic,” she told reporters. “And I think what we’re all trying to say is … we would like to solve these problems, but if we can’t … we don’t want to see good energy policy held up just because of the complexity of those issues.”

The group also spent a few minutes at the end of the meeting discussing some differences related to energy efficiency between the competing House and Senate bills.

“We just had barely a conversation about the fact that the bills are going in different directions, so we don’t know really what the issue is,” Cantwell said. “We don’t know if it’s the building code aspect of it or the authorization aspect of some of these provisions. We don’t know what their problems are.”

House Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), meanwhile, struck a pessimistic tone about the prospects for a conference.

He slammed the House Republican-backed bill as “totally partisan and counterproductive” because it “encourages fossil fuels” and not renewables.

“And you’ve got a bipartisan Senate bill, which is certainly an improvement, but still doesn’t really move us forward in a significant way toward our energy future,” he said Thursday.

“The only way I can support a conference is if it goes beyond both of these bills and actually provides some resources for energy infrastructure, moves toward renewables and away from fossil fuels — it would be very hard to reconcile these bills unless you just cut all the bad items and just boil it down to some small items that we can agree on,” said Pallone.

“So I’m not very optimistic at all that we’re going to be able to come to an agreement on these two bills.”

Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) last week said the principals were trying to be “constructive” in sorting out the legislative differences.

“From our perspective, we’re anxious to see the Senate actually name conferees,” he said. “So I’m hoping that can happen. I don’t know if it will or not.”

Appropriations outlook

Senate leaders have said repeatedly their top legislative priority this year is moving spending legislation, but that push is growing more complicated.

The fiscal 2017 Commerce, Justice and Science bill, S. 2837, which has been on the floor for two weeks, slowed to a crawl by Democratic attempts to attach gun control provisions.

“We hope to able to work through the CJS appropriations,” a Senate Appropriations spokesman said Friday.

Republican leaders, however, have yet to file for cloture on the bill, a sign that they might not see an easy route to passage.

Moreover, the Senate last week rejected a procedural attempt to kill a revised amendment to prohibit people on the no-fly list from buying a gun. GOP leaders, who oppose the provision, could opt to block it by simply deciding to halt work on the CJS legislation altogether.

Beyond the Justice Department, the $56.6 billion bill funds NASA, the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Dozens of other amendments remain pending, including provisions to prevent NOAA from prohibiting commercial cargo vessels in national marine sanctuaries and to require the agency’s National Marine Fisheries Service to pay for at-sea monitors.

Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have also filed amendments to address a provision related to controversial water allocations in the Southeast.

Cantwell introduced an amendment that would provide $4.1 million in emergency funding for any commercial fishery that has failed since 2014 after a resource disaster.

The Senate also could take up the House-passed $1.1 billion Zika spending bill conference report, H.R. 2577, this week. It contains a rider providing an up-to-six-month waiver of U.S. EPA permitting requirements for spraying mosquito pesticides.

“The House did its part, now the Senate needs to do its part — and this agreement represents our only chance to put Zika control money to work now,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

GOP leaders have filed for cloture on the conference report, and a vote could come as early as today. It would require 60 votes to move ahead.

Democrats, however, have said they will oppose calling up the legislation over proposed spending offsets and add-on policy riders. The White House has also said it would reject the legislation.

“This is a conference report that doesn’t look like it can even pass the United States Senate. But if it did, and the president was presented with the bill, he would veto it,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said last week. He noted the pesticide waiver “guts some provisions of the Clean Water Act.”

McConnell said last week his chamber would “be dealing” with Puerto Rico before July 1, when the island’s government is due to make a $2 billion debt payment. A Puerto Rico debt bill passed the House earlier this month after several weeks of negotiations.

But senators from both parties said they would like to see changes to the House bill. If they amend it, the measure would have to return to the House, which is not in session again until after July 4.

The bill would create a seven-person federal oversight board to promote economic growth and help the territory pay its $72 billion in debt. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority is responsible for about $9 billion of that debt.

Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.