As the Senate edges toward a rare floor debate on a bipartisan energy plan, both parties are reckoning with the benefits and risks of playing catch with two of the capital's biggest political footballs: Keystone XL and U.S. EPA power plant emissions limits.
Republicans continue to press amendments that fast-track the oil sands crude pipeline and slow down President Obama's plans to trim the carbon footprint of the power industry as part of a deal to call up the efficiency measure written by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). But even if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agrees to subject his more vulnerable members to two politically difficult votes, forcing the upper chamber on record on KXL and Obama's climate plan could prove a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP.
Sixty-two senators voted in favor of the $5.3 billion pipeline during a nonbinding test vote in March, but that amendment from Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) focused on KXL's merits without vowing to cut short the Obama administration's ongoing review of the project. If a more strongly worded measure comes to the floor next week and fails to score a filibuster-proof margin of support, greens emboldened by their campaign against heavy Canadian fuel imports are likely to promote the outcome as a sign of eroding congressional support for KXL.
"The reality is that this has become a religious totem on the left, and anything that calcifies that is probably bad," Republican energy strategist Mike McKenna, whose clients include oil and utility interests, said of the pipeline in an interview.
McKenna likened the politics of frequent votes on KXL to the GOP's long-running and failed push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling: "Keystone is at a serious risk of becoming like ANWR, where opinions get really hardened -- not in a sense that makes it more likely, but in a sense that makes it more difficult."
Daniel Weiss, climate strategy director at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, advised Republicans that "all the money they spent last year on ads attacking the president over Keystone has only put the decision on the pipeline more into play."
If the GOP succeeds in making the Shaheen-Portman bill a vehicle for requiring Obama to approve KXL, Weiss predicted, "the president is not going to sign" it into law.
And if the GOP fails to corral enough Democrats, the fallout could be worse. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), one of the pipeline's strongest House backers, acknowledged in an interview this week that the chances of a filibuster-proof Senate vote to push through KXL are "kind of iffy."
In certain pro-KXL circles, Terry said, "suspicious minds" might ask whether Reid would agree to a pipeline vote he was confident he could win in order to "wipe the board" of the issue. "That's the problem," he added. Should Senate Republicans fail to corral 60 votes next week, "does it make it more difficult" to keep KXL in the public eye?
The consequences of a Senate vote on Obama's emissions regulations are harder to discern, in part because EPA has yet to craft its rule for existing plants and few sources have seen the version for future facilities that is undergoing a White House evaluation (Greenwire, July 10). The Senate split 50-50 in 2011 on a GOP bid to block EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, but a March test vote on carbon pricing drew 41 Democrats -- just enough support to successfully filibuster an up-or-down vote on stopping Obama's climate agenda.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in an interview yesterday that his proposed efficiency bill amendment would focus on Obama's plans to regulate existing plants, highlighting that EPA's move amounts to "the exact opposite" of its avowal in April to have no plans for imminent carbon limits on those facilities (E&ENews PM, April 10).
Barrasso added that he did not know whether his amendment would receive a vote, and its fate could influence whether Reid calls up the Shaheen-Portman bill.
Critics of strict power-plant regulations hailed the prospect of a Senate vote next week.
"It's valuable for there to be as many signals sent to the administration as possible that EPA should not move forward in a way that's going to endanger the reliability of the grid or make electricity prices skyrocket," Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the industry-backed Consumer Energy Alliance, said in an interview. "Frankly, the time for you to influence a proposed rule is before it's proposed."
Whatley, a former Senate GOP aide, offered a less sanguine view of the Shaheen-Portman bill's KXL politics. "The downside is, you don't ever want to lose a vote," he said. "Sixty-two is the high-water mark, and you want to keep it at that."
Down to the wire
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) remains locked in negotiations with his committee's top Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and the bill's sponsors about the passel of amendments that might receive floor time next week. Wyden said yesterday that he was "encouraged by the number I thought were both good and could be worked out," though he declined to so much as hint at the fate of Barrasso's EPA amendment and a pro-KXL amendment Hoeven has said he plans to propose.
Asked about whether Reid would call up the efficiency bill to the floor next week, Hoeven was cautious: "I'd say that's in the 'we'll see' category," he said. "It's going to come down to what he and the majority decide to do."
The Senate will still be debating a transportation funding measure on the floor next week and is scheduled to vote on President Obama's nominees for FBI director and the National Labor Relations Board, as well.
Portman said yesterday that there are "probably a dozen or so" amendments under consideration, remaining equally cautious about the most controversial pair. "Until the bill comes to the floor and you actually begin the process, it's tough to know" which proposed changes will gain or lose momentum, he explained.
Environmentalists are bracing for a week of retrenching in defense of EPA and opposition to KXL.
"Our impression is that an amendment to block Obama's climate plan is a higher priority than KXL for the Rs, but we are gearing up for both," a top green group official said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly.
Another senior conservation group lobbyist said via email, on condition of anonymity, that "we think we're in good shape" on KXL because the wording of any amendment "will likely be more extreme than what came up in the budget context."
But the lobbyist offered a more hesitant prediction on an EPA amendment: "We've always ended up doing well on climate votes, but there hasn't been a vote yet on the president's new plan, so no one can be sure where the votes are."
Melinda Pierce, deputy national campaign director at the Sierra Club, pointed to "long and diligent work to keep this bill narrow" by Shaheen and Portman, as she contended that senators should abandon controversies in the service of cross-aisle progress. The efficiency measure seeks to trim federal energy consumption and modernize building codes while encouraging state-level efficiency programs.
"The process argument is a compelling one" for beating back attempts to broaden the bill's scope, she said in an interview. "Can the Senate legislate before they leave for August recess?"
Beyond the big-ticket items
The efficiency bill faces an uncertain future in the House, however, which makes it a compelling proving ground for other substantive energy debates.
Hoeven is pushing a separate amendment, joined by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), that has generated push-back from some environmentalists and renewable-power advocates. The duo want to repeal a provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act requiring new and renovated federal buildings to stop using energy from fossil fuels by 2030; instead, they propose stricter efficiency requirements regardless of the fuel source.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) is pushing an alternative approach that would keep the fossil energy phaseout and strengthen the efficiency targets while making narrower tweaks to the 2007 law.
The American Wind Energy Association entered the fray yesterday with a letter to senators urging support for Whitehouse's approach. AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan argued that the Hoeven-Manchin amendment "would eliminate the carbon-neutral building requirement, thus obviating the use of non-greenhouse gas emitting sources of electricity, including renewable energy," to comply with the 2007 law.
Separately, a coalition including the Alliance to Save Energy, the American Gas Association, the Edison Electric Institute and other companies and trade associations is urging support for the Hoeven-Manchin amendment in another letter to senators yesterday. The coalition argues that it would produce equivalent energy savings while providing agencies and contractors with greater flexibility.
McKenna, the GOP energy strategist, suggested adding another idea to the mix next week.
"It would be much better to focus on something that's newer and more informative," he said, such as voting on the per-ton carbon fee legislation from Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Reporters Nick Juliano and Amanda Peterka contributed.