Lawmakers look to clinch deal on spending, taxes, miners

By George Cahlink, Geof Koss | 12/09/2019 07:06 AM EST

Congressional negotiators met throughout the weekend hoping to strike a year-end spending deal, with energy tax breaks and relief for retired coal miners on the line.

Lawmakers return this week looking to secure year-end deals on spending and other priorities.

Lawmakers return this week looking to secure year-end deals on spending and other priorities. Francis Chung/E&E News

Congressional negotiators met throughout the weekend hoping to strike a year-end spending deal, with energy tax breaks and relief for retired coal miners on the line.

Appropriations subcommittees handed off their bills to committee leaders on Friday afternoon with a goal of having them resolve any final sticking points.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said Friday her panel had narrowed the outstanding issues and saw an accord within reach.


"I am forever optimistic we can have more of our potential issues of difference resolved, so that we hand leadership only a few things to deal with," she said.

McCollum declined to specify what differences remain but said spending levels and policy provisions are "interconnected."

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the top GOP Energy and Water Development appropriator, said he remains confident Congress will pass its bill before current spending expires on Dec. 20 as part of a minibus spending package.

Asked if Trump would sign the bills amid an impeachment vote, Simpson laughed and said, "Don’t ask me what the president will do. I have no idea."

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said late last week that after months of stalled spending talks, an overall spending deal was within reach.

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Thursday it would still be an uphill fight to pass all 12 spending bills by the Dec. 20 deadline.

"It’s going to be hard," he said. "It’s not impossible, but it’s going to be very difficult to accomplish. I wish we could do it all. But we’re making progress."

As negotiators race to reconcile the competing bills, 17 Senate Democrats on Thursday urged top appropriators to maintain the $9.5 million for EPA environmental justice programs in the House Interior-Environment bill.

If lawmakers cannot reach an accord, another stopgap spending bill would be needed to avert a shutdown just before Christmas. It would likely stretch at least a few months into the new year to get beyond an impeachment trial that could consume the Senate for several weeks.

Everything ‘up in the air’

A spending deal would be good news for advocates seeking a year-end agreement extending an assortment of lapsed energy tax breaks that could be attached to the funding package.

"It’s like everything else, kind of all up in the air depending on whether a budget deal comes together," Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told E&E News on Thursday. "It’s just still very fluid, but I still have hopes that we can get at least the basic packages."

Thune’s comments reflect the coolness of many Senate Republicans to Democrats’ overtures seeking expansions of key renewable clean energy incentives scheduled to sunset in the coming years.

Lawmakers continue to face pressure from outside interest groups, including local officials from 30 states who wrote the Hill on Friday in support of expanding key breaks for renewables, electric vehicles, efficiency and other clean energy sources.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said last week, however, he was "not optimistic" on a deal coming together, which some members have said must be ready this week to be vetted and attached to a year-end omnibus package.

"We’re running out of time," he said Thursday, while taking a shot at Democrats for being "absorbed by all this impeachment mania."

Senate Finance member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she continues to be frustrated at the standoff, which has harmed biodiesel plants in her home state.

"I think it’s unfair for small businesses who deserve to have tax predictability, can’t get it out of this group," she told E&E News on Thursday, while criticizing Republicans for the 2017 tax overhaul that she said "gave the store away to big corporate America."

However, top Republican tax writers have signaled they’re willing to deal on at least some of Democrats’ green energy priorities in return for unspecified "technical corrections" to fix inadvertent changes in the 2017 tax law that have caused headaches for many entities (E&E Daily, Nov. 22).

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) on Friday unveiled a new bill correction.

They said in a statement they want to fix a hiccup in the tax law that creates "exorbitant taxes on critical water infrastructure investments in New Hampshire, Alaska, and across the nation."

Miner pensions

Appalachian lawmakers are also pushing to see relief for struggling coal miners enacted before the end of the year, provisions that could also be attached to a spending deal.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he told his colleagues he will block end-of-year votes until the miners’ pensions are addressed.

"We made sure that everyone knew … that we’ll be here through Christmas if they don’t do it," Manchin told E&E News on Thursday.

But Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not committed to including her pension bill with appropriations legislation.

While the Kentucky Republican recently co-sponsored legislation on the issue, she downplayed the significance (Greenwire, Nov. 6).

"He hasn’t made a firm commitment because he wouldn’t do that anyway," she told E&E News. "I think the negotiations are ongoing, but he’s very committed to finding a way."

Capito said she also spoke with Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who does not support the Appalachian senators’ approach and wants to act more broadly to shore up a host of struggling multisector pensions (E&E Daily, Dec. 5).

"We’ve had a conversation, but you know I’m sticking with the miners," she said. "Their pension system is in much dire straits than others."


Other major legislation also could move on its own this week or next.

The House and Senate are expected in the coming days to vote on a final fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, whose fate may be in doubt in the House after Democratic negotiators abandoned efforts to reach a compromise deal that had broad support among Democrats on both sides of the Capitol.

It’s also possible lawmakers could vote on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement before the end of the year, as last-minute negotiations continue with the Trump administration.