Lawmakers decamped for their seven-week recess yesterday amid a growing pile of unfinished business that awaits them in September, which includes key energy and environment spending bills, a possible energy conference report, and measures to fight the Zika virus and address the lead crisis in Flint, Mich.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of leaving for their national convention in Cleveland next week with a long to-do list, including funding for Zika and Flint, plus proposed gun control legislation and criminal justice reform.
"We’d like to stay here and work," Reid said on the Senate floor.
"I’d like to work for the people of Nevada and work for the rest of the American people. The Republicans, they’re not going to hear of this. They want to go. They want to go listen to Donald Trump," Reid added.
Responding to the criticism, Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), joked: "They don’t like being in the minority?"
"You only get to set the agenda if you’re in the majority and the reason why we haven’t been able to get more done is because of the dysfunction, obstructionism of the Democrats," he said.
The Senate started slogging through appropriations bills 10 weeks ago, but the effort has been "thwarted by Democratic desire for an omnibus," Cornyn said.
The final outcome could instead be a continuing resolution, Cornyn said, "which nobody likes."
If a CR is necessary, Cornyn would opt for a spending bill that lasts through early 2017, leaving the issue to a new Congress and president.
"I’m not a fan of kicking things into a lame-duck session," Cornyn said. He thinks Democrats see increased leverage in year-end negotiations.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pushed back against charges that the House had done little legislating this year, noting education, opioid, transportation and export control measures have all passed the chamber.
"It’s divided government," Ryan said at a press conference yesterday. "It’s not easy to get things done when you don’t have a lot of cooperation from the other party."
Ryan also said he has "not given up on the appropriations process" for fiscal 2017.
So far, the House has passed five of the 12 annual spending bills. With the new fiscal year set to begin on Oct. 1, lawmakers will have to pass a stopgap funding bill in September.
"I just don’t think it’s — it’s right at this stage to say, we’re done with appropriations, we’re going to move on," said Ryan, who declined to say how long a stopgap measure should last.
Conservatives have pressed for a six-month CR to avoid a lame-duck omnibus. Appropriators and moderates say lawmakers should finish their spending work before adjourning for the year rather than leave agencies in funding limbo for months.
Democrats blocked the defense spending bill in the Senate yesterday, but GOP leaders want to bring it back up in September. The fate of the appropriations bills that fund U.S. EPA, and the Energy and Interior departments remains up in the air.
The House yesterday passed its first Interior-environment spending bill in years, top Senate appropriator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday it was unclear whether the Senate companion would reach the floor in September.
"I’m hoping so," she said.
The outlook for the energy and water spending bill is somewhat brighter. The Senate passed its $37.5 billion version in May (E&ENews PM, May 12). The House bill failed after 130 Republicans rejected the measure over a gay and transgender rights amendment (Greenwire, May 26).
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said the fiscal 2017 energy spending bill could return to the House floor in September.
"There has been some talk of bringing it back under a closed rule," said Simpson, who said the legislation would likely come back with the contentious amendment stripped out.
Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also said he expects the energy bill to return to the floor.
"We’ll clean up a couple amendments and bring it back up. It’s one we could get up and get done pretty quickly," he said.
A Ryan spokesman said leaders had not made any final decision on spending bills that might be on the floor when Congress returns and before it leaves to campaign for the elections.
Also in September both chambers will try again to come to an agreement on Zika virus funding, after Senate Democrats yesterday blocked — for the second time — a GOP bill to appropriate $1.1 billion to fight the disease. The administration had requested $1.9 billion (E&ENews PM, July 14).
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) slammed Republicans for including provisions targeting Planned Parenthood and a rider to temporarily exempt pesticides from Clean Water Act permits.
"They took a whack at clean water," Reid told reporters.
Ryan, meanwhile, accused Senate Democrats of putting politics "above the health and safety of the American people."
Top GOP appropriators in both chambers sent President Obama a letter urging the administration to "aggressively" reprogram funds to fight the virus using existing authorities.
Discussions will continue over the recess by staff and members on energy reform legislation after Senate Democrats this week finally blessed a formal conference committee with the House after weeks of hesitation over disputed provisions (E&ENews PM, July 12).
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said this week that the tight calendar made it unlikely that a bill could be finalized before the elections.
"Let’s face it, that will be hard to do," he told reporters.
Upton added that Republicans "don’t have any red lines in the sand" and acknowledged that the final product may be far more narrow than the bills passed by the House and Senate.
"Clearly there are some things we think we can agree on," he said, citing provisions in both chambers’ bills to expedite natural gas exports and boost the energy workforce.
Despite the launch of the conference process, there still seems to be some disagreement among key conferees over the bill’s scope.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, told E&E Daily this week that he doesn’t see any room to negotiate on any of the five "poison pills" included in the House’s revised version.
"I don’t think there’s a lot of comfort with negotiating language on those because we’re in the minority here and there, and you could end up with some precedents that would be very, very bad," he said.
Additionally, Grijalva noted that just eight House Democrats supported the lower chamber’s effort. "And I don’t see that changing," he said.
Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) disputed the notion that any issues had been taken off the table for the conference. Lawmakers from both parties had spoken about only moving forward with provisions the president would sign.
"I was not privy to any conversations when someone made a deal that said this stuff will not be in or will be in," he told reporters yesterday. "A conference is a conference, you handle it in the conference."
Bishop signaled plans to press ahead on some of the disputed issues, including provisions addressing the California drought and wildfires.
"If we do not solve [these problems] in this opportunity we have failed people," he said. "There’s no reason those problems should not be finalized. This impacts too many people’s lives."
Bishop also said he expects energy talks to drag on past the election as well.
"I expect to be buying Christmas gifts here again," he added.
Offshore drilling, Flint, taxes
While it faces long odds this Congress, lawmakers appear headed toward a fight over legislation by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) that would expand sharing of federal offshore drilling revenues with coastal states.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) placed the bill on the calendar earlier this month, fulfilling a pledge he made to Cassidy earlier this year after the Louisiana senator’s bid to see it attached to the Senate’s energy bill faltered (Greenwire, July 6).
Cassidy had been angling to see it become part of the energy conference negotiations but conceded yesterday that path was "unlikely."
"What we’re looking at now is what can it move on and what is the best timing of the vote to ensure that we get the maximum number of votes," he told E&E Daily. "But still have it available to be attached to something else that is moving."
An end-of-year omnibus is one likely target, "but it could be something else as well," he said.
Democrats continue to fight to secure funds to help Flint residents cope with the fallout of the city’s lead-contaminated drinking water.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who along with fellow Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow has led Senate efforts on Flint, said yesterday he was optimistic that federal dollars would flow to Flint when the upper chamber takes up the Water Resources and Development Act this fall.
"We’re hopeful it will be taken up when we come back in September," he told E&E Daily, noting widespread support for WRDA, given the bill’s broad reach.
Democrats are also angling to see an assortment of renewable and efficiency tax breaks extended, although that push will wait til the end-of-year lame-duck session (E&E Daily, July 14).
Before heading out the door last night, the Senate passed legislation, S. 1935, to support waterfront community revitalization and confirmed Blair Anderson to be Department of Transportation’s policy undersecretary.