Congress is close to having the first energy bill conference in more than a decade, but when or whether the Senate will join the House in formally launching negotiations remains up in the air.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has been angling to launch conference talks since her committee’s bill passed the chamber in April, but she indicated before the recess that it was unclear when that might happen.
"I think [Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell understands that in order for us to do the work that’s going to be required in a real conference, we’re going to need time," Murkowski said in an interview. "So I think we’re going to push to have the Senate act on this sooner rather than later."
The delay is partly related to a packed congressional agenda that includes appropriations bills and the fiscal 2017 defense authorization act, which will consume much of the Senate’s attention this week.
While a vote to go to conference could take just a few hours, it would require the consent of all senators to allow such a detour to happen during the defense authorization debate.
Asked about the timing of a Senate move to join the House in conference, a McConnell spokesman on Friday was succinct. "Working on it," he wrote in an email.
Democrats on both sides of the Capitol are less than enthused about the revised House bill. Leaders added numerous provisions in an effort to match the much broader Senate version.
Only eight House Democrats voted last month for the revised legislation, which Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee who will be a key negotiator in conference, referred to as "an 800-page monstrosity" (E&E Daily, May 26).
On the other side of the Capitol, Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has repeatedly criticized the House for adding multiple bills into the mix that the White House has threatened to veto (E&E Daily, May 25).
Murkowski acknowledged the problem but, as expected chairwoman of the conference, expressed confidence that a sound process could allay Democrats’ concerns.
"Is there a path that we can agree to that will, I guess, just make it a little easier for people to say, ‘OK, let’s sit down and put all this stuff out on the table and start working it’?" she asked. "That’s what we’re going to be working on."
She also noted there’s substantial bipartisan buy-in for the Senate bill.
"What I keep hearing from folks is, ‘Look, there’s just so much good in this; let’s figure out how we can get going,’" Murkowski said.
Offshore drilling votes?
The delay in launching conference talks may boost a bid by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) to expand the sharing of federal offshore drilling revenues with coastal states.
Opposition from longtime drilling foe Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) thwarted Cassidy’s earlier bid to see a vote on his proposal during the energy bill debate. Cassidy is now hoping to slide the issue into the energy conference (E&E Daily, April 28).
Speaking before the recess, Cassidy said his language could come to the floor this month and, once the House passes a similar measure, could find its way into the conference talks.
"That’s our hope, one of several sort of avenues we’re attempting to do," he told E&E Daily.
While agreeing that his push faces tough odds in the current political environment, Cassidy said he was nonetheless ready to seize an opportunity to raise awareness of an issue that has long been a top priority for his state, which is rapidly losing coastal wetlands that serve as a barrier to devastating storms such as Hurricane Katrina.
"We could potentially have another, and more likely to have another if we don’t rebuild that coastline," he said. "If we rebuild that coastline, it is nature’s way of protecting the rest of the country, the rest of the state. The more we draw attention to that, the better. It’s a long-term issue."
Cassidy said he was pressing the point with lawmakers, portraying the long-running revenue-sharing debate as one of basic fairness.
"We just have to rebuild the Louisiana coastline," he said. "It’s going to cost billions. And the rest of the country has benefited from this exploration off our coastline, but our state has suffered.
"And we don’t really think it’s that much of a stretch to say, ‘Wait a second, because of all this work the rest of the country has benefited, the Mississippi River has been dammed by levees, so it doesn’t feed our marshes, but in the meantime, inland commerce has greatly benefited. Our state has suffered; you have benefited. Can’t we have a little reciprocity?’"