Energy, enviro lawmakers seek opening as health care dominates

By George Cahlink, Geof Koss, Kellie Lunney | 03/15/2017 06:45 AM EDT

(Left to right) House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) during the panel's markup of health care legislation, which lasted more than 24 hours.

(Left to right) House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) during the panel's markup of health care legislation, which lasted more than 24 hours. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, courtesy of AP Images.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop ticked off a list of priorities for the 115th Congress, ranging from cutting down the maintenance backlog at national parks to overhauling the Antiquities Act. But the Utah Republican conceded he hasn’t yet even raised those issues with GOP leaders.

"I realize there are first things first," said Bishop, citing the focus by Republicans on rewriting the Affordable Care Act. "It doesn’t change where I want to be at the end of the day, but it may change the timing of it."

Across the Capitol, bipartisan leaders on energy, the environment, land and infrastructure echo Bishop’s point, saying the intense focus on health care in recent weeks and the need to confirm hundreds of Trump administration nominees are dominant.


Those lawmakers say they are hopeful, if not convinced, that once the ACA fight is over and administration appointees are in place, there might be more room to maneuver.

Lawmakers say they could revive energy reforms that came close to passing during the last session of Congress. They also point to a massive infrastructure package to advance a trove of priorities.

"Clearly, we’re going to be focused here on the Obamacare repeal and replace," said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), an appropriator who also sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He also mentioned Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch as a Senate priority.

But Daines, who also heads the Senate Western Caucus, was confident that energy and environment priorities would not get short shrift.

"It’s not as if we can’t begin the hearing process," he said in an interview. "You know the committees will be very, very active."

Indeed, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) gaveled in her first hearing in almost two months yesterday morning after being focused on getting Cabinet picks confirmed. But the hearing on energy infrastructure is not necessarily a signal that legislation will come soon (see related story).

"Here in the Senate particularly, we’ve got limited bandwidth," she said. "Big things take longer. Maybe you’ve noticed that everyone thought we were going to have [health care reform] kicked out the first month. It’s going to take longer."

Other Republicans, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, are quick to point out that Congress has already made headway in regulatory reform.

He noted that Congress has used the Congressional Review Act to kill several rules promulgated under President Obama, including one to protect waterways from coal mining.

Republicans say the current agenda reflects campaign and policy promises. Beyond the CRA resolutions and health care, party leaders expect to see a tax reform package move through the House by the summer.

Still, the agenda will soon grow even more crowded, and floor time more limited, as Congress will need to quickly pivot to wrapping up fiscal 2017 spending work, with a possible government shutdown looming on April 28.

Lawmakers will also need to start looking ahead to the fall, when a high-stakes vote is due over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Plus, they have to take action on fiscal 2018 spending.

"You’ve got to be able to do more than one thing at a time," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leader of moderates within the Republican caucus.

Infrastructure remains a wild card. Lawmakers increasingly believe the package once marked for early action will not move until 2018.

Even then, Republicans have concerns about the potential cost. The White House has floated a $1 trillion, 10-year plan. GOP skeptics say it may be better to move it in smaller pieces.

Democrats, for their part, worry that the White House plan may be more focused on privatizing federal infrastructure through tax credits than on launching overdue public works projects.

Picking a spot

The lengthy to-do list has some energy and environment lawmakers looking to attach their priorities to other legislation.

Several Capitol Hill observers are quick to note that the last major piece of energy legislation — action in 2015 to lift the crude oil export ban — rode on an omnibus, year-end spending package.

Bishop has suggested that the current appropriations process could carry some of the natural resource policy provisions that came close to making it into the bipartisan energy legislation in December.

Murkowski and House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) are looking to the infrastructure package as a vehicle (E&E Daily, Jan. 12).

Murkowski said she is less concerned about identifying obvious legislative vehicles than about having the policies themselves ready to go when the opportunity presents itself.

"Why develop a strategy that is hanging on something that may or may not come up, or when it does come up, how long is it going to be before it comes up?" said Murkowski, who added that she has been working with ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) "to refresh, reboot our energy bill from last year."

But frustration over the collapse of last year’s energy bill House-Senate conference committee remains a hurdle to picking up the legislative pieces.

At the time, Murkowski and Cantwell harshly criticized the House for walking away from talks, saying there were just two outstanding issues left (E&E Daily, Dec. 8, 2016).

Cantwell has said the experience made her more wary of attempting to formally conference with the House again, noting that staff spent hundreds of hours trying to seal a deal.

"We’re always willing to work with people, but I think they have to prove that they are serious about a bill, because they weren’t," she said. "And they wasted a lot of time of people over here."

Upton, who handed over the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel this year to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) to comply with House GOP term limits, said earlier this month that the fact that health care and tax reform are ahead of the infrastructure bill may be a blessing.

"We have some time to work together and be prepared to have a really good title," Upton said.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a senior E&C Committee member, said the "good news" is that there already is a largely "free market" energy policy in place, and major changes are not needed for the oil and gas industry.

He said Congress should look to help the coal sector and could always do more to roll back environmental regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

Barton stressed that the energy policy changes needed are not so daunting that they cannot be handled by this Congress over the next two years.

‘Walk the plank’

Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said he regularly talks to his GOP counterparts like Walden. He said he believes the committee could move a bipartisan, "robust" reauthorization of brownfields legislation and a bill to shore up the nation’s energy grid.

But Pallone said he worries that Democrats will be forced to spend much of their time fighting Trump administration efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan, exit the Paris climate accord and make deep cuts in U.S. EPA spending.

"It’s hard in this atmosphere," said Pallone, noting the 27-hour markup last week of health overhaul legislation that no E&C Democrat supported.

Other Democrats say Republicans have miscalculated in believing they could move a health care bill quickly. Still, they say the two parties could find common ground on spending bills, if they are free of contentious policy riders.

Bishop also said that once the parties "get over" their split on health care, they should be able to work together in places, including on tribal land issues.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a sometimes brash conservative, appeared over the weekend on ABC’s "This Week" to warn the House against moving too aggressively with a partisan health plan. He harked back to an energy fight from a generation ago to make a point about how the push could boomerang on the GOP.

"Do not walk the plank and vote for a bill that cannot pass the Senate, and then have to face the consequences of that vote," Cotton said.

"You remember, when House Democrats voted for a Btu energy tax [in 1994], not only did that not become law, it didn’t even get a vote in the Senate," he said. "And those Democrats lost their next election because they voted on that tax."