First in an occasional series.
Tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul spent the better part of his time at two Energy and Natural Resources Committee meetings this spring railing against bipartisan energy measures in a schoolyard spectacle that has become de rigueur on Capitol Hill this year.
The Kentucky Republican is not alone in his antics. Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have resorted to taunting, bickering and name-calling as the two parties are stuck in a partisan impasse over issues large and small. Work on significant energy policy has generally come to a standstill outside of a handful of committees.
Still, a growing number of lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- stand out among the throngs as willing and capable of looking past differences to find common ground on energy policy. But as the stakes get higher -- with skyrocketing oil and gas prices, energy security worries and the global clean energy investment race -- a question remains: Will they be able to convince their colleagues to act like adults on energy issues?
Some observers are optimistic.
"The good news is that the elements of an effective policy and political deal will begin to jell if we will act in a bipartisan way, as Congress did in 2005 and 2007," when two major energy laws were passed, former Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) wrote in an editorial last week.
Dorgan and Lott currently head the energy team at the Bipartisan Policy Center and have some bold new ideas about how their former colleagues could break through the partisan impasse on energy policy. They are proposing an expansion of oil and natural gas development on federal lands -- a longtime GOP priority -- in exchange for a dedicated royalty funding stream that would finance investments in alternative energy technologies.
"We continue to believe there are any number of possible ways forward on issues like oil security, long-term clean energy investment fundings, domestic oil and gas production and energy subsidies," Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in an interview. "Those are all topics both parties work on."
Dorgan and Lott added in their editorial, "Policymakers have shown over the past decade that they can act with bipartisanship to address oil issues. ... A similar opportunity exists now."
Efforts to work across the aisle on energy issues are already taking shape in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are well-versed on the intricacies of working in a bipartisan manner.
So far this year, the duo have come together on bills and draft legislation dealing with nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency, hydropower and clean energy financing. But only a handful of those measures have cleared the committee, and it remains uncertain whether Senate leaders will allow floor votes -- or whether any of the bills could find enough votes to pass.
"I think it's clear that we have more disagreement in this Congress than we had in the last Congress on a lot of issues," Bingaman said after a recent markup (E&E Daily, April 13).
Bingaman is the epitome of what an energy policy "grown-up" looks like. He is pragmatic and thoughtful, and he understands that bipartisan cooperation is necessary to move legislation forward in the Senate. For years, he has worked with his GOP counterparts -- including Murkowski and her predecessor on the committee, former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) -- to advance wide-ranging energy measures.
Murkowski has long been known for her willingness to work with Democrats but this year is in a unique position after a historic re-election victory last fall as a write-in candidate and a departure from Republican leadership. Since her write-in victory, she has broken ranks more than usual with some of her party's more conservative members on a number of key message votes.
But the famously bipartisan duo are not alone in their efforts. A new crop of senators are showing their willingness to act like adults on energy issues.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are other members of the energy committee who have demonstrated an ability to look past partisan differences in order to find compromise on energy issues.
The duo last month floated an energy efficiency measure. A hearing on that bill, which also has the backing of Bingaman and Murkowski, will take place in the energy committee tomorrow (E&E Daily, June 6).
Shaheen also displayed a no-nonsense approach to partisan bickering over energy issues when she chided Paul during a hearing on a separate energy efficiency measure for his tirade against an Energy Department official.
"I think it behooves us all to not engage in name-calling of those officials carrying out the work that Congress has asked them to do," she told Paul after calling him back into the hearing room (Greenwire, March 10).
But neither lawmaker would go so far as to label themselves as "adults" on energy issues.
"I wouldn't frame it that way," Shaheen said. "But I consider myself somebody who is very interested in seeing something get done on energy policy and recognize that in order for that to happen we've got to work in a bipartisan way, and that's what I'm trying to do."
Likewise, Portman said, "I'm not a major player, but I am on the committee and I think we have the opportunity this year to do a few things in the United States Senate, and one has to be energy policy."
Despite their ideological differences, Portman, who is new to the Senate this year, could someday fill the void that will be left when Bingaman retires at the end of this Congress. Like Bingaman, Portman has shown a pragmatic willingness to compromise on energy issues.
"Even if we can't agree on all of the important energy policy issues, we need to find common ground on some of the basic ones," Portman said.
Bingaman, Murkowski, Shaheen and Portman aren't alone. Other lawmakers, like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), have indicated a readiness to work across the aisle on energy issues. Although Alexander is not on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, he is the top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over energy issues. And he has championed the issues of nuclear energy and electric vehicles and has partnered with Democrats on measures addressing both.
No grown-ups in the House?
But despite the willingness by many in the Senate to work past differences on energy issues, the House remains an entirely separate arena of partisanship.
The Republican majority has pushed through a handful of energy measures so far this year, but they largely have been symbolic votes on heady GOP priorities like expanded oil and gas drilling.
"What would be adult would be to have an honest, broad conversation about a forward-looking energy policy. That's not what we're having in the House today," said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
And while he praised "grown-up" senators like Shaheen, Portman and Alexander, he noted the challenge of pushing measures through the Senate when they stand little chance of passage in the House.
But Bledsoe is optimistic there is room for compromise in both houses.
"I think a proposal like the Dorgan-Lott proposal that increases domestic oil and gas production and provides revenue for alternatives should have appeal to both parties," Bledsoe said. "I think the debate in the last Congress became highly partisan -- became more partisan than perhaps ever before on energy -- and I think it's time for the parties to recognize that can be both self-fulfilling and in neither one's interest."
"This is politics," he added. "You have to come up with proposals that are attractive both on policy grounds and politically for both parties. I don't see it as an impediment that can't be overcome."