It’s been just over a month since the Senate voted on climate change, clean energy development and environmental protection, but that’s too long for some Democrats, who are eyeing an upcoming amendment marathon to secure a fresh round of roll calls on those issues.
Next week, the House and Senate budget committees are expected to release their annual tax-and-spending blueprints, with the goal of reconciling the two chambers’ differences and providing guidance to appropriators by mid-April.
In the Senate, the budget process means a return of the "vote-a-rama," the lengthy series of nonbinding amendments that are typically offered to the budget resolution culminating in an all-night session of back-to-back votes. This year, with the budget expected to hit the Senate floor the week of March 23, it could be the last item of business before lawmakers adjourn for the Easter and Passover recess.
Last month’s consideration of legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline featured weeks of amendment debate and several votes that were far more dramatic than on the underlying legislation, which all along was destined for a presidential veto.
For example, Republicans stunned observers when they nearly all agreed that climate change was not a "hoax" in response to an amendment from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), although most continued to dispute the link to human activity.
The Senate also demonstrated ample bipartisan support for closing a loophole in tax law that spares oil sands producers from contributing to a spill liability trust fund and for reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund during its consideration of the KXL bill. Although no changes were made in law, those issues are likely to re-emerge later this year.
Amendments to the budget resolution also will be nonbinding, and their policy goals will have to be put into the somewhat awkward language required to avoid budgetary points of order. But Democrats are eager to find more opportunities to force their colleagues into tough spots.
"I want to use every opportunity we have to highlight the massive difference between where the Republican Party in Congress is on climate change — i.e., pretending it’s not real — and where the American public is, i.e., having to cope with it every day," Whitehouse told E&E Daily this week.
The budget resolution’s coming release also could mean a new opportunity to deploy "reconciliation," a policy tool that allows legislation to pass with just 50 votes in the Senate rather than the 60 necessary to overcome a filibuster. Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has said reconciliation instructions are a possibility in his budget resolution but declined to divulge details ahead of its release.
The most recent reconciliation language enacted came in 2010, when the procedure was used to finalize the health care overhaul after Democrats lost their 60th vote in the Senate. Reconciliation bills have been enacted 23 times since the first use of the optional procedure in 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Budget Committee can include in its annual resolution reconciliation instructions directing committees to enact policy changes necessary to hit the spending or revenue targets it includes. Committees are given a deadline by which to report back, and their proposals are typically assembled into an omnibus reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered on the Senate floor. If just one committee receives reconciliation instructions (typically the Finance Committee), its reconciliation bill can proceed straight to the floor.
While Finance’s jurisdiction over taxes and entitlements makes it the most frequent recipient of reconciliation instructions, most committees have been called on at one point or another to contribute to the filibuster-proof package. Reconciliation instructions went 10 times to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and 11 times to the Environment and Public Works Committee since 1980.
Notable policy issues addressed through reconciliation bills, according to a 2013 CRS report, included an unsuccessful push to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling in 2005.
In 1987, Congress used a reconciliation bill to implement the designation of Yucca Mountain as a disposal site for nuclear waste from the nation’s network of nuclear power plants, a move that was never fully implemented amid years of legal wrangling until the Obama administration pulled the plug a few years ago.
Democrats contemplated using reconciliation for cap-and-trade emissions legislation in 2009 but never followed through with the plan, and such proposals are likely to remain nonstarters for the foreseeable future.
This year, reconciliation is seen as a possible tool to address a Supreme Court ruling expected this summer that could affect who is eligible for Affordable Care Act subsidies, but it remains to be seen whether other policies areas would be pursued.
"We have to choose our targets. … It’s not a wide-ranging option that can be used for a number of issues," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a member of the Budget Committee, said in a recent interview. "So, it’s just more limited than people might think."
Wicker pointed to the appropriations process as a more likely venue to target regulations from U.S. EPA and other agencies. "You wouldn’t need reconciliation for that," he said.
Still, Wicker and other Republicans acknowledge that they would be unlikely to get the necessary 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster if they were to try for a full repeal of EPA’s climate rules, the Affordable Care Act or other items central to President Obama’s legacy.
Republicans are nonetheless expected to attach a variety of policy riders to this year’s appropriations bills, and last month’s showdown over funding for the Department of Homeland Security revealed how difficult the process can be.
Democrats fear reconciliation could become a fallback option for GOP efforts to undo the president’s policy goals or pursue some of its own.
"The answer is yes, we are worried, but we just don’t know what the Republicans are doing at this point," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a recent interview.