Sit-in casts doubts about legislative prospects before election

Source: George Cahlink and Geof Koss, E&E reporters • Posted: Friday, June 24, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hoped to head into the Fourth of July break touting bold GOP plans for achieving energy independence, repealing Obamacare and crafting a tax code overhaul in 2017.

Instead, Ryan has spent the past few days scrambling to respond to a nearly 26-hour, unruly Democratic protest on the House floor and salvage any hopes for moving legislation in this session of Congress.

Ryan sought to look forward yesterday morning as the protest, aimed at forcing votes on gun legislation, neared its conclusion.

“We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business,” he asserted.

But lawmakers and aides from both sides of the aisle said this week’s turn of events underscore how partisan Capitol Hill has become this election season. They say partisan tensions from the protest will leave an already polarized Congress even more hard-pressed to pass any significant legislation, including an energy overhaul and the annual spending bills, before this November’s general elections.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told E&E Daily this week that “everyone looks to be constructive” on reconciling competing House and Senate energy bills but said there’s little chance of a deal before Congress leaves for a seven-week break on July 15.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive bill — lots of different issues, many different disagreements. I am one who believes we can get there, but it’s going to take some hard work and clearly will not be done overnight,” Upton said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed serious doubts about whether any deal can get done on energy. He called the House-backed energy bill “awful” and “counterproductive” because it favors fossil fuels over renewables.

“Unless this is a very minimal, watered-down bill, it’s highly unlikely that we can accomplish much,” said Pallone, a visible figure during the House floor protest pounding out chants of “no bill, no break” on the House rostrum.

Senate and House leaders of the energy panels met this week but did not schedule another meeting nor did they set a timeline for a deal (Greenwire, June 22).

Some lawmakers say an early morning decision yesterday by House Republicans to pass a partisan $1.1 billion Zika aid package, despite efforts at conference negotiations, is not a promising sign for other accords.

“Certainly my colleagues will have doubts,” said Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, when asked about how that failed Zika conference would affect a potential one dedicated to the energy bill.

Republicans defended the $1.1 billion Zika legislation as fair and overdue to address an emerging public health crisis. They said they had no option but to push it through early yesterday morning only hours before the recess because of the floor protest and a need to act before adjourning for the Fourth of July.

“You think we are going to have a civilized conversation about the Zika virus? You think [Democrats] were interested in coming to the mic, and debating Zika? Of course not. They were screaming and shouting over each other,” Ryan said in defending his move.

Democrats criticized the bill over its call for spending offsets and its inclusion of several policy riders, including one offering a six-month waiver of U.S. EPA permits for spraying mosquito pesticides.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the Zika bill a “disgrace” and said it would allow more pesticides into the environment. Senate Democrats are expected to be united in opposing cloture on the bill, meaning the measure will lack the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.

Work on annual spending bills was also complicated by the Democrats’ protest. The House had hoped to finish the annual financial services spending bill this week and then take up the Interior-Environment bill the week of July 5.

Ryan, who has repeatedly made passing all 12 spending bills this year a priority, seemed resigned yesterday that the House would not be able to do so before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

“I want to move as much appropriations product through the House floor — as much as possible,” Ryan said. “And I don’t want to talk about [stopgap funding bills] because that means we are shortchanging the process we’re trying to get going.”

More protests possible

Democrats, meanwhile, are not ruling out new protests when the House comes back next month.

“I’m saying that [while] we are going to leave here today, this protest will not end,” said Assistant House Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who helped coordinate the sit-in.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not promise more floor protests but said to expect more “spontaneity” from Democrats who have yet to get the votes they want on gun legislation. She added the effort showed Democrats were in a “whole new world” in trying to force legislative action.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a party leader who like most other Democratic senators visited the House floor during the protest, sounded a discordant note when asked what the protest might signal for future legislative prospects.

“I think the Republican leadership on both sides is letting the [National Rifle Association] run the show,” he said.

Ryan for his part dismissed the protest as a “publicity stunt” and “fundraising scheme.” He said he’s “reviewing everything” to make sure similar floor takeovers do not occur again.

And in yet another sign of congressional disunity, Senate Democrats in a press release used last night’s charitable congressional baseball game to make a political point. They called on the GOP to field only eight players, not the standard nine, since they have not confirmed a ninth Supreme Court Justice.

“If eight is enough for the Supreme Court, it’s enough for your baseball team,” the Democrats’ release chided.

Reporters Hannah Hess and Nick Sobczyk contributed.