Gone are the days of politically charged, procedurally doomed bills designed more to rile up partisans than to actually change policy.
At least that’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hope when it comes to the sweeping energy bill she looks to assemble in the coming months.
"It’s not going to benefit me to try to move a measure that has no bipartisan support. I might be able to move it through committee, but if I can’t actually move it through the floor, that’s a lot of work for no gain," the Alaska Republican, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told reporters during a 40-minute briefing yesterday afternoon.
"We’ve done a lot of messaging around these parts of late, and I want to actually make some changes to our energy policy," Murkowski continued. "We haven’t done that since 2007; it’s way past time."
Murkowski yesterday floated a slate of 17 bills aimed at bolstering the electric grid, easing some regulatory burdens and supporting alternative forms of energy, among other measures, and several other senators from both sides of the aisle put forward their own ideas ahead of a series of hearings over the next two weeks (Greenwire, May 7).
While not all of the proposals will make the final package, the menu of options Murkowski and Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are considering may be most noteworthy for its absence of the most divisive issues, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which Murkowski has been advocating for years, or creating a nationwide renewable energy standard, which many Democrats have historically supported.
To be sure, the most controversial aspects of energy, environmental and climate change policy would likely have to be addressed somehow, but Murkowski said she hopes those issues can at least wait until the broad energy bill makes it to the Senate floor. Murkowski pointed to a 22-0 vote last month in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which she also is a member, on legislation to update the controversial No Child Left Behind education law as evidence that bipartisanship is possible.
"That’s kind of a marker for me," she said of the unanimous education vote, pointing out that during a committee markup, members on both sides of the aisle agreed to withhold their most controversial amendments until the bill hits the Senate floor.
The Energy committee will convene a hearing next Thursday on proposals for the energy bill’s infrastructure title. On May 19, it will consider supply title proposals, and on June 4, the energy bill legislative hearings will conclude with a focus on government accountability, including the Department of Energy loan guarantee program. The committee expects to begin marking up legislation as soon as next month, but it remains to be seen how quickly a bill would hit the floor.
Murkowski said she has been reaching out to members who are not on the committee to stress her goal of delivering bipartisan legislation that can pass, including occasionally briefing fellow Republicans during their weekly policy lunches.
"I make no secret of the fact that I’m trying to build out an energy package that is broad and comprehensive and moves this country forward," she said. "And I want ideas from all members."
Lobbyists who have been involved in the process from the outside say Murkowski has been just as interested in bipartisanship behind the scenes. She and Cantwell have sent aides into joint meetings with outside stakeholders and worked closely with the Department of Energy, whose recent Quadrennial Energy Review is serving as a template for parts of the bill (see related story).
Still, there is a wariness given the prevalence of congressional gridlock in recent years and the extent to which a commitment to areas of bipartisan consensus may limit the scope of a final bill.
"If the political will exists, there’s a path forward to meaningful energy legislation," said Franz Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Part of demonstrating that political will, he added, would be convincing the "bomb throwers" in the Senate to hold their "fossil-fueled fire" and not weigh the bill down with efforts to eliminate U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, for example.
Matzner said environmentalists also would be looking for a bill that "cuts pollution and embraces the future" and would be skeptical of calls to expand oil or gas drilling on public lands or offshore, for example. He had not studied the details of the various proposals yesterday so could not weigh in on specifics but said the effort seemed to be moving in the right direction.
"There is a road map emerging for real progress," he said.
Mike McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who advocates for utilities among other clients, said he liked the general approach of the Murkowski bills and their focus on taking advantage of abundant domestic energy, but he noted that the overall package is constrained by its lack of attention to controversial issues such as climate change, oil and natural gas exports or hydraulic fracturing regulations, among others. But he predicted votes on those issues would eventually occur — even if they came on amendments that ended up failing on the floor.
If the energy bill makes it to the floor, it could build on a record that started in January with the dozens of amendments to the Keystone XL bill and continued this spring on the budget resolution. Another round of amendments to an energy bill — which would be more detailed than anything lawmakers have been forced to weigh in on since 2007 — would be incredibly valuable in its own right.
"It makes lobbyists nervous, and it makes staff nervous," McKenna said of letting senators vote on specifics. "But it’s really healthy because it starts to ventilate issues."
Even if an energy bill does not become law this year — which still may be the safest bet given the relatively little time remaining before campaign season drains the Capitol of its legislative ambitions — the process will better illustrate where members of Congress stand on issues like how the country should manage natural gas pipelines or integrate rooftop solar panels into the electric grid.
"At the end of the process, I think we’re going to know … a lot more about the world than we know right now," McKenna said. "It becomes the base line for the next go-round, so you’ve got to take it seriously."