For the last six years, the Senate has been unable to bring itself to debate an energy bill, due in large part to the tricky politics surrounding climate change. Yesterday's effort to end that streak quickly stalled because of the tricky politics surrounding health care.
No one is yet writing the obituary for the popular and bipartisan -- if modest -- energy efficiency bill that hit the floor yesterday. But no one is guaranteeing its survival, either.
The crux of the problem is Sen. David Vitter's demand for a vote on his unrelated legislation targeting a piece of the health care reform law. Without a vote on the legislation -- either as an amendment to the energy bill or as a stand-alone measure -- he said he would object to all further proceedings on the energy bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted the approach in a floor speech last night, accusing Vitter of trying to grab attention with a nongermane "gotcha" amendment that is stalling progress on efficiency legislation with broad bipartisan support.
"But be that as it may, we'll work with managers to craft a way forward on this bill, perhaps," Reid said. "Or we may have to take the bill down. So we'll make that decision at a subsequent time."
Emerging from a 20-minute meeting in Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office earlier in the evening, Vitter told E&E Daily that he would drop his objections only if he could secure a vote on his health care bill, which would adjust how the health care reform law applies to congressional staff, political appointees and select other government officials.
McConnell last night also filed as an amendment a House-passed bill to delay for one year individual and employer mandates established by the health care law, a spokesman for the minority leader said.
Debate over the energy efficiency bill from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was always expected to involve controversial amendments. It is, after all, the first floor debate on an energy bill since the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. But senators, aides and lobbyists tracking the bill had mostly been on the lookout for amendments still within the energy sphere, such as expected attempts to block U.S. EPA climate rules or force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said yesterday evening that he remained hopeful that Vitter could be convinced to drop his objections, but he acknowledged that the negotiations were primarily happening among Reid, McConnell and Vitter.
Wyden suggested he would be open to a vote on Vitter's amendment.
"I think that part of this is senators raise their concerns, you have a vote, and you take the results," Wyden told E&E Daily in a brief interview.
Senators float their amendments
While no amendments could be brought up for formal votes because of Vitter's objections, several senators came to the floor yesterday afternoon to promote amendments they were planning to offer. Most were bipartisan efforts to build on Shaheen-Portman's underlying goals of promoting energy efficiency.
"One of the reasons I'm trying to highlight that not only is this a bipartisan bill, but senator after senator is offering bipartisan ideas to highlight what the untapped potential is here for bipartisan energy efficiency legislation," Wyden said.
As for more controversial topics, such as climate rules and the Keystone pipeline, Wyden said discussions were ongoing. He spoke on his way from the Senate floor to a meeting in his office.
Most of the amendments discussed on the floor yesterday were fairly benign, bipartisan efforts to promote energy efficiency more broadly.
Among them, Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) touted an amendment they are co-sponsoring to expand efficiency efforts in schools. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) promoted the "Better Buildings Act," which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) to encourage efficiency in commercial buildings. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) noted the amendment she was offering alongside Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to provide assistance to nonprofit organizations to perform energy efficiency retrofits.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) offered an amendment that would allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to seek private investment for efficiency retrofits at HUD-managed properties with the caveat that investors be repaid only from the net cost savings those retrofits create.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) offered the first amendment yesterday, aiming to direct the Department of Energy to study state-level and international standards dealing with so-called standby power, which is drawn by appliances such as televisions and game consoles. Efforts to address what he referred to as "vampire power" could generate large energy savings.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) came next to the floor to request consideration of an amendment he co-sponsored with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to authorize the use of geothermal heat pumps to meet renewable energy targets the government must meet under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It was that amendment that drew Vitter's first objection.
A few more controversial amendments also were floated yesterday.
Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) proposed an amendment that would bar U.S. EPA from blocking state plans to meet the controversial regional haze program, unless a federal plan meets certain restrictions.
Under the regional haze program -- designed to restore visibility at 156 national parks by 2064 -- states must offer a proposal to reduce sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants, but the federal government can overrule plans deemed too weak. The plans have proven controversial on all sides with environmentalists accusing EPA of approving inadequate plans and state regulators and utilities saying the federal replacements would be too expensive.
The amendment would bar EPA from overstepping on a state plan if the federal replacement would not cause more than a 1.0 deciview improvement or if the federal plan would cost more than $100,000 a year more than the original.
Wyden said he had not studied the proposal in detail but was inclined at first glance to oppose it.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also introduced two amendments dealing with green building certifications. One amendment, co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), would ensure that the green building ratings systems used by the General Services Administration do not "put at a disadvantage" certain building materials, such as lumber, Landrieu said in a floor statement.
The U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees the widely used Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification system, earlier this year warned of a potential Landrieu effort to undercut the government's use of LEED (E&E Daily, May 23). But it was not immediately clear whether that would be the effect of her amendment. Requests for comment from Landrieu's office and USGBC were not immediately returned last night.
A second amendment from Landrieu and Wicker would exclude small businesses from requirements that products undergo third-party testing before being certified under the government's Energy Star program, she said on the floor.