WASHINGTON, May 24, 2016 - Wednesday’s House vote on conferencing with the Senate to reconcile their separate energy bills could lead to Congress either passing a bipartisan energy bill this year or opting instead for go-nowhere partisan messaging.

Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski is confident the Senate’s more bipartisan approach will prevail and the first comprehensive energy bill since 2007 will be signed into law this year.

Along with the challenge of limited legislative time remaining, the vote tallies for the two bills show a sharp contrast: 

  • The Senate passed its Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016 (S. 2012) in a bipartisan 85-12 vote, with ayes from 42 Republicans and 43 Democrats and all 12 nays from Republicans.
  • The House passed its North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015 (H.R. 8) in a largely party-line 249-174 vote that included only nine Democrats supporting the bill.

  • Based on House Rules Committee action Tuesday, the House floor vote Wednesday will be on substituting the party-line House bill for the bipartisan Senate bill and approving a House/Senate conference committee to reconcile differences and hammer out a final bill for consideration by both chambers. That conference committee could be convened in early June.

    One Senate staffer told Agri-Pulse that the conference committee will face challenges because “We passed a broad bill, the House passed a narrow bill. We passed a bill with bipartisan support, the House passed a bill on party lines.” He added that “There are some people who believe that the Senate bill as currently configured couldn’t pass the House.”

    The staffer said that in substituting the House bill for the Senate bill, “It’s of course the House’s prerogative to include their priorities and send it back.” What happens next, he said, “will largely be incumbent upon whether Senate Democrats are willing to proceed to conference with the House’s package or not.”

    Despite that uncertainty, he said Congress has ample time left to pass a comprehensive energy bill this year, noting that “The 1992 Energy Policy Act was signed in October of a presidential election year.”

    The differences between the House and Senate bills reflect the fact that Senate Energy Committee Chair Murkowski, R-Alaska, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., worked closely together to keep their Senate bill bipartisan. Potential deal-killers discarded in committee included Republican proposals to increase offshore oil drilling and Democratic proposals to acknowledge and deal with global warming.

    In contrast to the Senate’s bipartisan approach, the House bill became increasingly partisan as it took shape. The result, as Murkowski commented in a teleconference after the Senate bill passed in April, is that the House bill is “pretty much a Republican bill.” Murkowski explained that based on the Senate bill’s strong bipartisan support, her goal in reconciling the two bills is to “try to keep that bipartisan approach.”

    Another staff member explains that what happens next in large part will depend on whether the conferees appointed by the House and Senate over the next two weeks are “dealmakers or zealots.”

    Yet even if “dealmakers” are appointed and even if the conference’s final reconciled bill turns out to be closer to the Senate bill than the House bill, it would face challenges because the bipartisan Senate bill itself came under attack Tuesday.

    Over 370 health and environmental organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace USA sent a joint letter to Murkowski and Cantwell, with copies to President Obama and every senator. The letter voices the group’s “outrage at provisions contained in the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012), as passed in the Senate, that expand domestic oil and gas development.”

    The organizations promise to “strongly oppose any final energy bill that encourages more domestic oil and gas extraction and stifles our urgently-needed transition toward a clean, renewable energy future.”        

    The letter specifically protests the Senate bill’s provisions which would accelerate the federal permitting process for oil and gas development and infrastructure. It warns that “Encouraging investment in fossil fuel infrastructure blatantly stifles our transition away from the dirty fossil fuels causing the current climate catastrophe.”

    The Senate Energy Committee’s 237-page report on the Senate bill stresses the need for its provisions in order to increase U.S. energy production and improve the delivery system for that production with new pipelines, new export terminals, and a modernized electric grid. The report concludes that “new legislation is urgently needed to modernize the nation’s energy policies for a new era filled with both promise and peril.”

    In sharp contrast, after charging that the Senate bill’s provisions ignore urgent environmental and climate issues, the protest letter concludes that “Energy policy must reject continued reliance on fossil fuels and instead champion a speedy and just transition to a clean energy future.”

    #30

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