Senate Faces Test on Small-Ball Energy Bills

Amy Harder

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will soon have at his feet a small handful of bipartisan energy bills primed for passage, but whether he overcomes the politics that have felled similar efforts in past years is a lingering question.

“Both of us are optimistic that this will be a new day when we see passage, not only through the Senate but working with our colleagues on the House side, ... of energy legislation that will be signed by the president and enacted into law,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told National Journal Daily.

Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., standing next to her, said, “We have a chance, I think, post the 2012 election, to finally get moving.”

However, the obstacles to passage—ever-present fiscal battles and partisan fighting—are some of the same that have locked up Congress on a broad range of issues in recent months. The energy bills can be seen as a test of whether change is at hand.

“I’m in good hopes that the Senate Energy Committee will pass bills that can really be considered on the floor and get bipartisan support,” said former Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., who chaired the panel from 1987 to 1995 and oversaw passage of a major energy bill in 1992. “Of course, they’re backed up against the grand bargain and the budget and all of these things, so that’ll take priority.”

Indeed, that’s what took priority Tuesday, when Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sparred back and forth about moving the budget through the “regular order” process—the advancement of bills from committees to the floor and through a bicameral conference.

Meanwhile, the Energy Committee will mark up five bills Wednesday related to hydropower and energy efficiency. Two pieces of similar legislation streamlining hydropower regulations have already passed the House with strong bipartisan support. The committee also held a hearing Tuesday on a measure reforming the way the federal government sells helium. The House recently passed similar helium legislation with only one dissenting vote.

These aren’t quite as sweeping as measures Congress has tried—and failed—to get enacted in recent years, including cap-and-trade and a renewable-energy standard. But they are something, and Murkowski and Wyden hope that the regular-order passage of their energy bills could help provide positive momentum for the overall legislative process.

“We need to do what this committee is doing, which is setting the tone for other members,” Murkowski said. Of the Senate as a whole, she added: “We have done much, much better this session in terms of advancing bills through regular order and allowing senators their amendments. We don’t have this pent-up demand for members to run an amendment because they think this may be the only bill they see moving.”

The Senate has moved the budget through regular order so far, including March’s vote-o-rama on dozens of amendments. On Monday, the Senate passed, 69-27, a controversial (but not partisan) online-sales-tax bill. That bill didn’t go through regular order—Reid skipped a markup in the Finance Committee—but its passage proved that Senate leaders are willing to move individual bills without letting fights over unrelated issues drown entire efforts.

The Senate is also using regular order to address the Water Resources Development Act, which provides $12 billion in funding to protect communities from storms and floods. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and ranking member David Vitter, R-La., are working together with leadership to come up with a list of amendments. Final passage could come later this week.

Energy policy is traditionally more political than infrastructure, triggering fights over issues such as climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline. The energy-efficiency bill the Energy Committee will consider Wednesday didn’t pass last year, largely because Reid and McConnell couldn’t agree on amendments.

When Reid does use regular order, Republicans often file scores of amendments, including some designed to force Democratic senators into difficult votes, said Chris Miller, who left the Hill in January after working on energy and environment policy for 25 years, including more than seven years as a top adviser to Reid.

So will this time be any different? Both Murkowski and Wyden hope so. “We shouldn’t be afraid to move legislation because we’re afraid about what amendments may or may not come,” Murkowski said.