House moves cautiously ahead of conference

By Geof Koss | 05/17/2016 07:00 AM EDT

Nearly four weeks after the Senate passed its first major energy legislation in nine years, the timing for a formal conference with the House to reconcile the chambers’ competing bills appears to be slipping — despite unease over a congressional calendar already abbreviated by the upcoming elections.

Nearly four weeks after the Senate passed its first major energy legislation in nine years, the timing for a formal conference with the House to reconcile the chambers’ competing bills appears to be slipping — despite unease over a congressional calendar already abbreviated by the upcoming elections.

After the Senate passed its bill (S. 2012) last month, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she was hoping for a fast conference that would produce a final product to be signed into law before the seven-week summer recess (E&E Daily, April 20).

House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) last month said he too was anxious to launch the conference, signaling the House could move to name conferees "very soon" after it returned from recess last week (E&ENews PM, April 29). The House passed its energy bill (H.R. 8) in December.


But Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) last week said the lower chamber wasn’t ready to go to conference (E&E Daily, May 11). One informed GOP aide on Friday said only that conferees would "likely" be named during the May work period, which concludes May 26, when lawmakers will decamp for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.

One lobbyist said yesterday that conferees could emerge in the House before the end of the week.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is expected to be a conferee, said Friday that he met with Upton and Murkowski last week to discuss the conference.

No firm decisions came from the meeting, "except that both sides want to go ahead with a conference in some way, and we talked about the process of what we would do to start that and how they will respond," he said.

Bishop acknowledged the tight schedule negotiators face, given that both chambers are scheduled to recess by July 15 for the Republican convention, which starts the following week in Cleveland.

"There’s a whole lot of work that has to be done before you can get some kind of report out there, so I think the sooner a conference can start the better," he said in an interview Friday. "Actually having everything done before the conventions — that would be a heavy lift. I don’t know if we can work that quickly."

Murkowski last week said she met with Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to discuss the upcoming conference, and although she’s been in touch with Upton since the Senate passed its bill, she’s hoping for more discussions.

"I’m looking for more conversations so we can kind of get the lowdown and kind of evaluate where we are with timing and where some of our bigger bumps in the road might be," she said.

While noting that "sooner is always better," Murkowski said the Senate is waiting to see how the House responds to its bill.

"They’ve got to make a decision here. Do they take up the Senate bill, which would be lovely, or do they send us what the House response is, and that’s what we’re waiting for now?" she said.

Republican energy lobbyist Mike McKenna said the delay in going to conference is partly due to the fact that formal conferences are so rare that few staffers working the bills have participated in one.

"This is a course they’ve never actually been on," he said yesterday.

Further compounding matters is that while the competing bills broadly address the same areas — including infrastructure, speeding natural gas exports, and boosting efficiency and renewables — they’re "two very different bills."

"It’s an awkward kind of thing," McKenna said. "You’re watching a giraffe trying to mate with a porcupine. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out."

A major hurdle is the Senate’s inclusion of permanent reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helped attract a lot of votes from senators of both parties but is a nonstarter for many House conservatives.

That includes Bishop, who was unhappy that LWCF was extended for three years in last year’s end-of-year omnibus-tax package.

Bishop last week said he was "ironically … kind of happy" that the Senate bill included LWCF, which gives him a chance to press for more reforms.

"By putting it in this, you open the entire damn thing up again," he said. "So I can start over. So it could be almost anything now."

But Bishop took a dim view of the Senate’s version.

"LWCF will not be permanently reauthorized," he said. "That’s bad policy, and it will not be mandatory spending, and I’m not the only one that would not agree with that. So that’s kind of an obvious. So whether we just actually take it off the table or we try to put some reforms in that to make it a decent program, we’ll see how that works out."

Other hurdles include the authorized spending levels contained in the Senate bill, disagreements over the efficiency provisions included in both versions, as well as the fact that just nine Democrats supported the House bill in December (E&E Daily, April 26).

Sorting out the substantive differences in a tight election-year schedule have lobbyists dubious over the prospects for the first new major energy law since 2007.

"Everyone’s going to give it the old college try, but I’m pretty skeptical," McKenna said. "There are enough challenges. And the time, the clock is constrained enough that I just don’t think it’s going to happen."

Another lobbyist closely following the bills said the House appears to be moving "deliberately" because of the climb ahead.

"They have to figure out how to do this where they get a conference report that can pass the House, can also pass the Senate and that the president will sign," the lobbyist said yesterday. "And those are three stars that will be very difficult to align."

Ultimately, this lobbyist said it’s "entirely possible" House leaders will come to the conclusion that finding agreement with the Senate may be out of reach. "I just think they want to do everything behind the scenes until they’re absolutely ready to go, and if they never get there, they never get there."