Senators fear floor logjam as workload piles up

By Geof Koss, Hannah Northey | 06/14/2017 07:23 AM EDT

Lawmakers remain concerned about the slow pace of filling top administration jobs.

Lawmakers remain concerned about the slow pace of filling top administration jobs. Ryan McKnight/Flickr

After months of operating without a functioning quorum, relief for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appeared in sight last month when President Trump named two nominees to the three open seats on the commission.

Those nominees, Neil Chatterjee, a top aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Pennsylvania state energy regulator Robert Powelson, advanced through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week. But there’s been no sign of floor votes for the pair despite a "hotline" request to do so issued the day after the committee vote.

McConnell’s office declined to comment on the hotline request, which requires the assent of all 100 senators to bypass the normal procedural hurdles associated with calling up a nomination and instead moving to a vote after a limited amount of time agreed to by both sides.


The episode highlights the dilemma Republicans find themselves in six months into the Trump administration: After months of waiting for the White House to submit names to fill out the ranks of political positions at federal environment and energy agencies, securing precious floor time to actually debate and confirm those nominees is a challenge unto itself.

Adding to the mounting workload is a push among Senate Democrats to move their nominees for FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission alongside Trump’s picks, loading up a queue of candidates awaiting vetting and background checks, not to mention committee and floor votes. Further adding to the legislative crush is an agenda that includes big ticket items like health care, tax reform, a budget debate and appropriations, as well as the trickle of judicial nominees and U.S. attorneys that are beginning to be named by the White House.

"We’re all jockeying for position," said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has expressed frustration for months over the slow pace of nominees for not just FERC but also U.S. EPA and the Interior and Energy departments. "This is what we were afraid of — was that if there wasn’t kind of an even flow you would have this slug come out all at once."

Murkowski is also anxious to see Trump’s nominee for deputy secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, move to the floor, although his past work as an oil and gas lobbyist suggests that Democrats won’t easily accede to that demand (Greenwire, June 6).

A fourth nominee who cleared the Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week — insurance executive Dan Brouillette to be DOE deputy secretary — is reportedly being held up by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) over the administration’s moves to restart the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Heller’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Murkowski acknowledged yesterday that the senator had questions for the nominee. "I don’t know in fairness whether he’s received those responses," she said.

In the Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) is facing similar headwinds.

He’s angling to see NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki confirmed before the end of the month, when her current term expires. If that doesn’t happen, NRC will lack a quorum just as FERC currently does.

Svinicki received her own confirmation hearing yesterday, along with NRC nominees Annie Caputo and David Wright. While EPW Committee ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) indicated he wants to see Svinicki confirmed before July 1, he declined to offer similar assurances for the other NRC nominees, as well as Susan Bodine, Trump’s pick to lead EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Democrats’ unhappiness with a controversial Department of Justice opinion that concluded federal agencies have limited obligation to respond to minority information requests also threatens the pace of nominations (Greenwire, June 13).

"Right now the one I want to move quickly is Svinicki and get her confirmed right away," Carper told reporters. "For the others, I want to have a conversation with my colleagues."

Barrasso acknowledged the busy legislative agenda, as well as a lack of cooperation from the minority, is complicating efforts to get nominees floor time.

"There’s a lot going on and the Dems have been reluctant to confirm just about anybody," he told E&E News yesterday.

Carper wants to pair Svinicki’s nomination with a Democratic pick for the commission, an idea he said yesterday that Barrasso was "comfortable" with. Barrasso, however, has noted that the two current Democrats on the NRC are still serving out their five-year terms.

"We need to get Svinicki done by July 1, that’s the most crucial thing right now," Barrasso said yesterday when asked about Carper’s pairing idea.

Other key pending nominees include top officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The Senate Budget Committee this week scheduled and then postponed a vote on Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee for deputy chief at OMB. Vought, whose nomination is also under the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel’s jurisdiction, has been controversial (E&E Daily, June 8). A Budget panel spokesman cited a scheduling conflict as the reason for the postponement.

A committee vote to move forward Neomi Rao, the nominee to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within OMB, has yet to be scheduled but is expected soon.

Reporter Arianna Skibell contributed.