Some Republicans show appetite for a Manchin deal on permitting reform

Source: BY RACHEL FRAZIN, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2022

A handful of Republican lawmakers appear open to working with Sen. Joe Manchin on his push for permitting reform despite tensions between the West Virginia Democrat and the GOP caucus.  Manchin has been pushing for policies that speed up the approval process for energy projects in order to build out more energy infrastructure. His last attempt ran into opposition from both Republicans — who said it didn’t go far enough — and progressives, who said it could harm communities who live near the projects.

Republicans were also not inclined to help Manchin after many saw him as double-crossing them with his agreement on a deal that led to passage of the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act. The deal was announced after Republicans backed a separate infrastructure bill.

In recent weeks, Manchin has engaged in talks with Republicans in the hopes of finding a lame-duck agreement on permitting reform.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) told The Hill that getting permitting reform done was “really, really, really important” and that he believed there is an appetite for it.

“Our country needs energy, all kinds of energy: oil, gas, renewables — we need critical minerals,” he said. “All of those things get boxed out by a broken, dysfunctional permitting system that pretty much everybody knows is broken.”

He said there was “slow but steady progress being made” and that he hoped to close what he described as “loopholes” on time limits in the energy project approval process that he said were a part of Manchin’s initial proposal.

Asked whether something could come together in the next few weeks, Sullivan said: “Maybe.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who has in the past expressed support for Manchin’s proposal given its inclusion of help for a natural gas pipeline running through their home state, similarly noted the importance of the policies to Republicans.

“We know that we can’t get energy produced in this country and pipelines built, roads built, even renewable projects done, if we don’t have permitting reform. Every Republican knows that,” Capito said when asked if the caucus wanted to get it done.

“The devil’s going to be in the details,” she added.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) also said that he and Manchin “agreed to try to work together” on the permitting issue, but appeared skeptical that it would get done in the lame-duck session.

Instead, he said a reform package could come together next year in a divided Congress split between a Democratic Senate and a GOP House.

“Obviously we’re focused on other things right now,” said Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, when asked about the prospects of getting permitting reform done in the next few weeks.

Republicans in both chambers have been focused this week on their party’s disappointing results in the midterm elections, which left Democrats retaining their majority in the Senate and the GOP expected to win just a narrow majority in the House.

The negotiations surrounding permitting reform are especially complex since the bill will need both Republicans and Democrats on board. While a contingent of mostly progressive lawmakers have already said they oppose the push, a rightward shift could alienate an even larger group of necessary votes.

Manchin has said that he hopes to see the legislation included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a must-pass military funding bill.

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was “not optimistic” about the permitting bill’s chances of making it into the package.

“My focus is to get the NDAA done,” he said.

Westerman also said he opposes adding nondefense riders to the NDAA.

There are reasons to think Republicans will not want to help Manchin secure a political win now.

He’s up for reelection in 2024, and his seat in a state that former President Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020 is seen as a prime pickup opportunity by the GOP.

On Tuesday, Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) entered the race. He is considered Manchin’s first serious Republican challenger in the contest, though the senator has not officially said whether he will run for reelection.

Stopping the permitting reform package, even if it contains policies that Republicans like, would also prevent Manchin from having a major policy accomplishment to run on.

Manchin’s proposal explicitly directs federal agencies to issue approvals for a natural gas pipeline that runs through West Virginia.

It also seeks to shorten the timeline for environmental reviews of energy projects, gives the federal government more authority to direct construction of electric transmission lines and requires the president to keep a list of priority projects, including both renewable and fossil projects, to be expedited.

Still, some supporters of Manchin’s effort seemed more optimistic that a deal could be reached soon.

“My hope is before we leave here, we’ll come up with a bipartisan compromise,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.). “I think they have a good chance to get it done.”