Getaway week could prove pivotal for energy, spending bills

By Manuel Quiñones | 07/11/2016 07:00 AM EDT

Congressional leaders are set to work this week to revive a flailing appropriations process and set the stage for the first major energy reform law in a decade.

Congressional leaders are set to work this week to revive a flailing appropriations process and set the stage for the first major energy reform law in a decade.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be working to convince colleagues to join the House in a conference committee to merge competing versions of an energy bill.

"We’ve got one more week here before we break for August, so my hope is that we’ll be able to see some resolve on this," Murkowski said last week.


Murkowski must overcome Democratic skepticism of provisions in the House bill. But launching a conference now, she said, would allow aides to address thorny issues during the seven-week-long recess.

"There’s a lot of legwork that has to go on that will entail staff, just kind of getting organized," she said. "We’d like them to be able to do that."

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said it would be a "horrible mistake" if lawmakers fail to launch negotiations.

"It would be horrible if we at both houses have come this far and done this much effort and not complete it," he said.

Bishop said there should be no pre-conditions to negotiations — many Democrats would like to see some House provisions off the table — but he said there was plenty of "low-hanging fruit" and priorities that everyone could agree to address.

Spending bills

The House is set to debate and potentially finish the Interior Department and U.S. EPA spending bill this week. House leaders giving any lawmaker a chance to introduce amendments and secure a vote will likely keep poison pills away (see related story).

But last week Senate Democrats made good on their threat to derail the appropriations process, a priority for Republicans campaigning on their ability to restore regular order on Capitol Hill.

Democrats denied the majority votes to move forward with the defense spending bill, accusing Republicans of breaking last year’s budget compromise by pushing controversial riders and failing to secure parity between defense and domestic spending.

Fueling the Democrats’ argument is a provision in legislation to provide $1.1 billion in funds to help fight the Zika virus. It would also pause some permitting requirements for spraying pesticides.

Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Amy Pope said during a conference call with Democrats last week that the president had spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to urge a "bipartisan approach," which she said the GOP had "failed to present."

Pope said the administration had set aside money for Zika but needed Congress to do its part as cases will likely increase during hot months. Lawmakers know the time for action is before recess.

But so far neither side appears ready to budge. Republicans accuse Democrats of threatening pubic health for blocking the Zika bill and national security for blocking the defense bill.

"The Department of Defense funding bill will support our armed forces and strengthen their ability to defeat current and future threats," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.

"This legislation should not be held hostage to the political antics of the Senate minority," he said.


Also on this week’s agenda is legislation to pre-empt state labeling requirements for foods produced with genetically modified organisms (see related story) and reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA legislation was once the preferred vehicle for a host of tax provisions, including for renewable energy sources, particularly those left out of last year’s spending and tax deal.

But Republican leaders had already indicated such a task would be too tough a lift with a limited amount of time available. And, as expected, a compromise FAA bill unveiled last week did not include energy tax provisions.

On Friday, Reid revealed that Republicans offered to include the renewable provisions in exchange for riders to block Obama administration environmental priorities — sage grouse management plans and a coal mining stream protection rule.

"Democrats refused to do unnecessary harm to our environment," Reid said in a statement. "Republicans should not hold American workers and businesses hostage with far-right riders."

And because GOP leaders had promised to address the tax provisions left out last year, Reid said they "should follow through on their original promise without expecting Democrats to cave in to their unrelated, partisan demands."

Reporters Hannah Hess and Ariel Wittenberg contributed.