Despite widespread support from Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, and industry groups, an energy-efficiency bill won’t get a floor debate until at least September, despite repeated assurances by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that the chamber would consider it before the August recess.
The Senate, which managed to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill in relatively short order, has so far failed to do the same for a modest, 48-page bill made up of small-ball measures and just one mandatory requirement: to make the federal government more energy-efficient.
Sometime before week’s end, Reid may place the bill, sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R‑Ohio, on the floor calendar. But that doesn’t guarantee a debate once Congress returns.
Here are four reasons why passing such a bill—once dubbed the low-hanging fruit of energy policy—is a lot harder than one might think.
No Sense of Urgency
“There have been a couple of obstacles. One has been the [difficulty of getting] the leadership to feel like there is urgency about getting this done,” Shaheen told an audience of clean-energy experts at a June speech in Boston.
Nothing has changed since then, because there is still no tangible urgency. No deadline exists, as it did for the bill addressing student-loan rates. No nominees are being held up. And the bill doesn’t fund necessary government programs, as do the spending bills filling up the floor schedule.
“It’s the first energy bill that we will have come to the floor since 2007,” Shaheen said Tuesday. “There is a lot of pent-up interest in addressing energy issues.”
Senators want to attach a whole host of amendments to this bill, including some controversial measures to address the Keystone XL pipeline and climate-change regulations that could put vulnerable Democrats in a tough spot. Reid has a genuine interest in passing the efficiency bill, but first and foremost he wants to keep his party in control of the Senate come 2014.
A fight over extraneous amendments and their potential impact on pending elections is familiar—Reid decided against bringing this same bill to the floor in the previous session of Congress for largely the same reason.
No Lobbying for a Clean Bill
Some of the groups with the deepest pockets are not urging senators to keep the bill free of amendments that could derail it, even though Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Shaheen have asked supporters to do exactly that.
“We’re not engaging in the back and forth on what should or should not be included,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.
The Shaheen-Portman bill is a top priority for NAM’s members, but so is the Keystone XL pipeline. “If any piece of legislation came to the floor that would help move Keystone along, we would strongly be in favor of it,” Eisenberg said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is actively lobbying for the bill’s passage, but it is not yet engaging on specific amendments. By contrast, the Natural Resources Defense Council is lobbying senators to keep the bill free of amendments on the pipeline and environmental regulations.
The “Lowest-Common-Denominator Curse”
The bill is supported by almost everyone, but that’s because there’s not much to it.
“Why is it so difficult to get this done?” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R‑Alaska, asked Tuesday. “Maybe because there is not enough in it that provides political leverage for other people.”
Call it the lowest-common-denominator curse. There isn’t enough policy in the bill to prompt the traditional horse trading that often brings on cosponsors.
By contrast, the House-passed cap-and-trade bill of 2009, which was more than 1,200 pages long, offered many items to many parties. Of course, that bill never became law. But it did clear the House, which is more success than Shaheen and Portman have had in the three years since they first introduced their efficiency bill.
The pair had to trim the bill even more this week to placate concerns about its spending provisions. Its cost before these cuts was $210 million, and now it’s expected to be even cheaper. The lowest common denominator just got a little lower.