Senate not likely to advance energy bill on third try

By George Cahlink | 05/09/2016 06:30 AM EDT

A bid to get the fiscal 2017 appropriations process back on track in the Senate by reviving the energy and water spending bill will likely come up short this evening.

A bid to get the fiscal 2017 appropriations process back on track in the Senate by reviving the energy and water spending bill will likely come up short this evening.

Senate Democrats plan to once again band together against a procedural vote to wind down debate on the $37.5 billion bill because of a proposed amendment related to Iran.

Before last week’s recess, the Senate voted 52-43 against invoking cloture, leaving the energy and water bill short of the 60 votes needed to move toward final passage.


Both Democratic and Republican aides said nothing had changed over the past week. It would be the third failed cloture vote on the legislation, the first of the fiscal 2017 spending measures to hit the floor in either chamber.

Many lawmakers saw the bill as a test of whether Senate Republican leaders could make good on their vow to move most, if not all, of the fiscal 2017 spending bills before the political conventions and summer recess. The energy and water bill is generally bipartisan, so its failure might not bode well for more controversial ones.

"We need to do it, not just for its own sake, but because it sets a good example for the next 11 [appropriations bills]," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) after the second cloture vote come up short (E&ENews PM, April 28).

Democrats blocked the bill after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed an amendment to block the Energy Department from buying heavy water from Iran. Heavy water, a component used in nuclear reactors, can be purchased from Iran under last year’s nuclear accord.

Democrats and the White House, which issued a veto threat over the provision, see the Cotton amendment as little more than an attempt to undermine the Iran deal. They also say it violates an agreement between the parties to try to keep poison-pill provisions off the spending bills.

Republicans counter that the amendment is fair game on the energy bill and note Cotton has offered to set a 60-vote threshold for attaching it. They also say the administration should have notified Congress about its plans for the heavy water purchase rather than announcing it in a press release.

It’s not yet clear whether the Senate will move on to another appropriations bill if cloture fails again. The transportation and housing spending measure is ready for action, but leaders scrapped a procedural vote to move ahead with it after the energy bill blowup.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters in a conference call last week that he has little hope for much legislation passing the Senate this year.

"Productivity isn’t something we talk about in the Senate anymore," said Reid, noting the chamber is currently on track to be in session for fewer days than any Senate in the past 60 years.

Another signal that work on spending bills may be stalling in the Senate is appropriators not planning to vote on any new measures this week. They had been moving at least one a week in April to line them up for floor action.

Zika funding

Both House and Senate appropriators are also planning to continue negotiations this week on an emergency spending bill to combat the Zika virus. The White House has requested $1.9 billion to fight the mosquito-borne disease.

GOP lawmakers have suggested they won’t go that high, might require offsets and believe the administration can use funding left over from the Ebola crisis. Backers of the emergency spending want it to ride on a fiscal 2017 appropriations bill to make sure it reaches the president’s desk.

Senior Republican appropriator Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said Congress was just starting to feel the impact of the Zika public health crisis. "But I think we will respond to it before it’s over with," he added.

Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.