Senate clears debt deal with pipeline, permitting mandates

By Emma Dumain | 06/02/2023 06:26 AM EDT

Lawmakers voted down an amendment to strip language facilitating approval of the Mountain Valley pipeline.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a press conference after the Senate passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling. Francis Chung/POLITICO

The Senate voted 63-36 late Thursday night to extend the nation’s borrowing authority ahead of a June 5 deadline after disposing of several contentious amendments — including on the Mountain Valley pipeline.

The “Fiscal Responsibility Act,” H.R. 3746, will suspend the nation’s debt limit until after the 2024 election. It will cut spending, institute new work requirements for federal food assistance programs and make a suite of changes to the National Environmental Policy Act as part of “permitting reform.”

The legislation passed the House late Wednesday night with the support of 165 Democrats and 149 Republicans in a 314-117 vote. It now heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.


The vote breakdown in the Senate followed a similar template as the House, though it occurred under some different circumstances.

Many Senate Republicans, for instance, blasted cuts to defense programs in the debt limit deal. They came around after an agreement to provide floor time for fiscal 2024 spending bills and a potential national security supplemental.

Senate climate hawks, meanwhile, were allowed a vote on an amendment — albeit without success — to strip out a provision to green-light completion of the Mountain Valley pipeline, a controversial natural gas project that would run through Appalachia and which has been the subject of environmental lawsuits for years.

The provision was included in the debt ceiling bill in a surprise bid to make good on an outstanding promise to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), specifically that the White House would back the pipeline in exchange for the senator’s support last year for the Inflation Reduction Act.

Environmental activists and their progressive allies in Congress railed against its inclusion. The effort to remove it from the bill was championed on Capitol Hill by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a self-described “energy moderate” who has accused the Biden administration of putting its “thumb on the scale” in favor of one project still being litigated by the courts.

In a floor speech Thursday, Kaine described the Mountain Valley pipeline as “a highly controversial projects that directly impacts families whose land will be taken for the [pipeline] project, and I stand on their behalf.”

Kaine also took the White House to task for not calling him and Virginia’s other Democratic senator, Mark Warner, to advise them the provision would be included in the debt ceiling deal.

Warner supported the amendment Thursday night, while others who might have otherwise backed Kaine’s effort voted against it in fear of jeopardizing passage of the entire measure. It failed, 30-69.

Schumer had warned that any changes to the bill in the Senate would likely not have left enough time for the House to vote on it again ahead of the Monday deadline.

Manchin, in his own floor speech Thursday, made an impassioned plea in support of the pipeline project, saying it would put 2,500 people to work and deliver as much as $50 million annually to West Virginia “and some to Virginia.”

He said that MVP, as it’s called in shorthand, stands for the “’Most Valuable Pipeline’ we have to offer reliable energy to the people of America.”

‘I oppose the pipeline, but …’

Senators twice last year voted on broader permitting reform proposals that would have slated the Mountain Valley pipeline for completion, among other things.

One such proposal was offered by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) in August 2022 as an amendment to the Inflation Reduction Act. It failed along party lines, with even Manchin opposing an effort at the eleventh hour to make changes to the closely negotiated bill.

Four months later, Manchin put forward his own vision for permitting reform as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which also had a Mountain Valley pipeline carve-out.

It was rebuffed, though many Democrats voted in favor of Manchin’s proposal that addressed both oil and gas projects and renewables.

Plenty of Republicans opposed the amendment because they didn’t like the transmission deployment component — and they didn’t want to give Manchin a political victory.

While this was the first time lawmakers went on the record supporting or opposing the Mountain Valley pipeline as a stand-alone proposition, it was also ultimately a victim of political circumstance.

Democrats were warning earlier in the day Thursday that they may not vote for the amendment despite opposition to the pipeline and sympathies for Kaine’s cause, not wanting to jeopardize passage of the underlying bill just days before the deadline to avoid default.

“I strongly support where Sen. Kaine is coming from on this pipeline, but the reality is, that pipeline is in this bill, and if it strips out, then I think we’re screwed,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).

Smith conceded she felt “bad” about the environmental provisions in the legislation but nevertheless felt compelled to support it to avert economic calamity.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) echoed these concerns: “I oppose the pipeline, but, you know, I’m also cognizant of what would happen if we add amendments.”

Smith and Murphy, likely seeing they had the latitude to vote for the Kaine amendment without compromising the overall bill, ultimately did so.

On Wednesday, Schumer made it clear no amendments would be allowed floor votes that had a chance of adoption.

Nerves ahead of vote

In advance of the amendment vote, however, Capito — who has fought fiercely for the pipeline alongside Manchin — conceded she was nervous about the prospect the pipeline could be stripped from the bill, saying, “we don’t really know” where the votes would fall.

She told reporters she made the case to her colleagues during the Senate GOP’s weekly luncheon that they must vote against the amendment if it came up. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), for one, made clear that he had heard the message loud and clear.

“We need more infrastructure when it comes to energy delivery,” he said Thursday afternoon, “and Sen. Capito has convinced me that it’s an important piece of the bill.”

Senators voted on 10 other amendments as a condition of allowing swift passage of the debt ceiling agreement.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who announced Wednesday he would oppose the bill for setting “truly horrific precedents” in making changes to NEPA and facilitating completion of the Mountain Valley pipeline outside the formal process, sought a vote on an amendment to strip out the entire section related to permitting reform. It was not ultimately allowed to come to a vote, angering activists.

On the other side of the equation, several Senate Republicans offered amendments that would do more to undermine Biden’s climate agenda after House Republicans fell short in getting Democrats to agree to these overtures in their original bid to raise the debt ceiling.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), for instance, tried to rescind the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean vehicle tax credits, while Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) wanted colleagues to weigh in on adding to the base text a long-sought measure from conservatives that would require congressional approval for some agency rules before they go into effect.

Neither amendment was brought to the floor, though another amendment from Lee, which would remove the authority of the White House to waive pay-as-you-go requirements for federal agencies, got a roll call but went down, 48-51.

Reporters Mia McCarthy and Timothy Cama contributed.