Lawmakers return from the August recess this week to dive headfirst into a crowded fall agenda that includes the hotly contested Iran nonproliferation agreement, preventing another government shutdown, keeping federal highway dollars flowing, as well as possible votes on crude exports and a number of other contentious energy and environmental issues.
The early focus in both chambers will be the resolution (H.J. Res. 64) to disapprove the Iran deal, a key foreign policy milestone for President Obama but one that Republicans have denounced en masse.
The House and Senate will debate the deal this week, although the Obama administration now has locked up enough support in the upper chamber to sustain the president’s promised veto. It remains to be seen whether Democrats can filibuster the measure entirely and prevent a veto override.
In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week told her colleagues she was "certain" there was enough Democratic support to uphold a veto in both chambers.
While Republicans appear to have fallen short in their efforts to quash the Iran deal, the debate has been useful for supporters of lifting the crude export ban. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for months has argued that easing sanctions on Iran will allow Tehran to broadly resume exports — something that U.S. producers aren’t allowed under current law.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) echoed the point last week in a Texas Tribune op-ed calling for the end of the export ban.
"Instead of easing sanctions on Iran, the U.S. should focus on easing de facto sanctions on America’s energy producers and releasing them from the grip of outdated restrictions that hurt consumers at home and force our friends to rely on our enemies," he wrote.
Despite growing momentum for allowing exports, including support from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House plans for acting on a bill (H.R. 702) to end the ban remain in flux.
Stakeholders on both sides of the export debate expect a markup of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), to take place in the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power this week, with a floor vote possible before the end of the month. An Energy and Commerce Committee spokesman declined to comment, and a markup was not listed on the committee schedule released Friday.
A House GOP leadership aide last week said the issue is expected to be considered in the fall but said the timing has not yet been confirmed.
In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July approved a package that would end the ban, as well as increase the sharing of offshore oil and gas revenues with coastal states, on a party-line vote. The measure’s floor prospects are uncertain, as is the timing of a possible floor debate on the panel’s bipartisan comprehensive energy package that passed simultaneously (Greenwire, July 30).
Export supporters are feeling encouraged by the willingness of some Democrats — including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — to discuss a deal allowing exports, provided renewables get some sort of boost at the same time (Greenwire, Aug. 25).
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) last month signaled he’d be willing to consider such a deal.
"In the context of being able to move us to a more secure energy environment in the United States, a cleaner energy environment in the United States, yes," he said when asked about lifting the ban at the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit in Denver.
Bennet’s comments were criticized by the liberal nonprofit Allied Progress, which recently launched an ad campaign in Colorado and a handful of other states opposing exports (Greenwire, Sept. 1).
"Big Oil’s lobbyists must be working overtime," said the group’s executive director, Karl Frisch. "How else do you explain why a sitting U.S. senator would be willing to trade an uncertain energy future of higher gas prices and Middle Eastern oil dependence for a few vaguely defined promises?"
The liberal pushback on a crude exports deal illustrates one challenge facing lawmakers willing to negotiate on the matter.
But it’s also unclear what sort of agreement could bring enough Democrats along to support exports, without causing GOP backers to walk away from the table. Permanent extensions of the renewable production and investment tax credits would face strong opposition in the House, and long-standing Democratic demands to overhaul oil and gas tax breaks or impose new wellhead taxes are likely nonstarters, noted Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners LLC.
"Right now, we don’t see a lot of room for Democrats who are willing to ‘make a deal’ on an issue where Republicans think an outmoded policy needs to be dropped, full stop," he wrote in an email last week.
Further highlighting the stakes for renewable tax credits are upcoming plans by the American Energy Alliance to launch a new six-figure campaign against the production tax credit, including rallying support for a bill (H.R. 1901) that would repeal inflation adjustments for the credit, while imposing new requirements to meet its "commence construction" eligibility criteria.
Continuing resolution expected
Congress also faces the task of keeping the federal government operating past the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year.
Obama used Saturday’s weekly radio address to urge Congress to avoid another shutdown at all costs.
"At a time when the global economy faces headwinds and America’s economy is a relative bright spot in the world, a shutdown of our government would be wildly irresponsible," he said. "It would be an unforced error that saps the momentum we’ve worked so hard to build. Plain and simple, a shutdown would hurt working Americans."
While the House and Senate Appropriations committees have passed all 12 of the annual appropriations bills, leaders in both chambers have abandoned efforts to move the bills across the floor.
The House passed a handful of spending bills before leaders pulled the plug to avoid intra-GOP fighting over Confederate flag amendments.
In the Senate, Republicans retreated from plans to bring appropriations measures to the floor in the face of Democratic unity to filibuster the measures — a strategy intended to force the GOP into budget talks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told a Kentucky television station last week that preventing a shutdown would be a top priority this month.
"The Senate Democrats have a big enough number to prevent us from doing things," he said on WYMT. "They prevented us from doing any of the bills that appropriate money for the government, thereby forcing a negotiation when we go back in after Labor Day, which I’ll be engaged in with the administration and others to try to sort out how much we’re going to spend and where we’re going to spend it."
However, Senate Democrats have repeatedly said a short-term continuing resolution will be needed to avert a shutdown.
A CR throws a monkey wrench into GOP efforts to push back against U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule and other policies through riders, but those fights will flare again later this year in spending negotiations.
EPA critics may get a chance to vent against the CPP later this fall, should GOP leaders bring a bill (S. 1324) to the floor that would allow states to defer submitting implementation plans for the rule on existing power plants until judicial review ends.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va), was approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee before the August recess over the objections of Democrats, who boycotted the vote (E&ENews PM, Aug. 5).
EPA will get additional congressional scrutiny — and Republican ire — this month when several committees hold hearings on the recent polluted water spill from an abandoned mine in Colorado (see related story). But the agency may get some moral support — if not an outright endorsement of its policies — when Pope Francis addresses a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24. The pontiff has been a vocal advocate of climate action.
Highway, drought, TSCA debates loom
Lawmakers must also grapple yet again with highway and public transportation funding reauthorization. The latest short-term fix expires at the end of next month; without at least another stopgap replacement, road and transit projects around the country could grind to a halt.
But advocates for highway contractors and labor unions are eager for the House to move ahead with a longer-term bill. In July, the Senate approved H.R. 22, which would authorize some $173 billion in spending on road, rail and transit programs over three years. The legislation also contains a host of policy changes affecting everything from railroad safety to bee-friendly roadside plantings.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee could release the text of its own legislation as early as Thursday, with a markup following a week later, according to one lobbyist following the issue. A committee spokesman declined to confirm that account, saying that nothing has been formally announced.
Meanwhile, with a historic drought continuing to wreak havoc in California, the state’s delegation will be upping the pressure this fall for Congress to finally enact a relief measure before the rainy season arrives in the winter.
The House passed a contentious Republican measure in July aimed at sending more water to central Southern California farms and communities by loosening environmental restrictions and greasing the skids for new water storage projects (Greenwire, July 16).
The state’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, unveiled joint legislation just before the August recess that would also make a series of operational tweaks aimed at moving more water to parched communities, but specifies that the adjustments must comply with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws protecting fish (E&E Daily, July 30).
Murkowski has said she intends to hold hearings on both measures before the end of the year, but her spokesman, Robert Dillon, said by email last week that no date has yet been set. Any California drought legislation is likely to be wrapped into a larger, West-wide water measure that Murkowski has said she intends to craft (E&E Daily, June 3).
Lawmakers may also take action on a bill to update how the federal government manages toxic chemicals, which is awaiting Senate floor time.
The Senate bill, S. 697, or the "Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act," was approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee in April but has failed to find floor time (Greenwire, April 28).
House lawmakers passed H.R. 2576, or the "TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) Modernization Act," earlier this year, sparking a debate over which measure would be more effective.
Opponents of the Senate bill, led by Boxer, the ranking member on the EPW Committee, have argued that making small changes to the House bill would produce a stronger proposal. But Boxer’s opposition hasn’t stopped the bill’s supporters from collecting a broad group of co-sponsors, who now total more than half of the Senate.
The House bill "is clearer and more concise and would be more appropriate to use as the vehicle for changes as the process moves forward," a letter by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and other groups argued.
McConnell has said he wants to advance S. 697 but has not announced a timetable for doing so. However, some lawmakers and advocacy groups have said action is possible this fall.
"I think there’s every indication that it will come to the floor," said Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and a supporter of the Senate bill. "It’s just a question of fitting into a very busy schedule."
Reporters Sean Reilly, Annie Snider and Sam Pearson contributed.