What to watch for in this week’s Senate ‘vote-a-rama’

By Nick Juliano | 03/24/2015 07:12 AM EDT

The Senate took up its annual budget resolution last night, kicking off several days of debate that will cover just about every topic on Congress’ plate — from defense spending to health care to taxes — and energy and environment issues will surely be part of the mix.

The Senate took up its annual budget resolution last night, kicking off several days of debate that will cover just about every topic on Congress’ plate — from defense spending to health care to taxes — and energy and environment issues will surely be part of the mix.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to spend the entire month of January debating legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline offered senators the chance to vote on dozens of amendments covering climate change science, the pace of energy development and federal land-use regulations, among other areas. But plenty of ground was left uncovered — and President Obama quickly vetoed the underlying bill — leaving ample opportunity to secure new votes this week.

Both parties are still putting the finishing touches on their amendment strategy, and the process will remain fluid throughout the week. But both parties have staked out identifiable terrain likely to emerge during the debate.


The "Byrd rule" prevents senators from offering amendments that are not germane to the underlying budget, but with some creative wording, senators can still use the process to raise a variety of issues. Amendments typically call for a "deficit-neutral reserve fund" that would direct an authorizing committee or committees to craft legislation addressing a particular policy area.

Amendments started being introduced yesterday, and voting is expected to begin around noon today with an amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would eliminate various corporate tax breaks to raise money for infrastructure spending. Myriad other amendments had been filed by early yesterday evening, but it remained to be seen what would get a vote on the floor.

Among the early items introduced was an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is up for re-election next year, to block U.S. EPA from implementing rules on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants if a governor or state legislature determines they would increase retail electricity rates. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) offered an amendment aimed at expanding offshore energy production, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) dropped one seeking limits to the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, a response to EPA’s controversial power plant rule.

Most amendment votes are expected to come Thursday at the conclusion of 50 hours of debate time that ensures a robust discussion of the first several amendments brought to the floor. After the clock expires, senators may continue to offer amendments in quick succession indefinitely, a process known as the "vote-a-rama" — which may not end until the wee hours of Friday morning.

The schedule remains a "moving target," a Republican aide said yesterday.

E&E Daily informally surveyed senators and aides from both sides of the aisle in recent days to compile a list of topics likely to be addressed during the budget week. Expectations are fairly modest given the dozens of energy-related amendments considered in January, but at least a few relevant topics are expected to come up. The votes can help guide future legislative efforts by indicating where senators stand on certain issues; they also typically re-emerge in campaign commercials closer to the election.

Sources stressed that their amendment strategies are works in progress; the following list is not exhaustive but provides highlights of issues each party could use this week’s debate to highlight. In general, Republicans can be expected to warn of economic harm that federal regulations can cause and push to expand energy development on public lands and offshore. Democrats, meanwhile, likely will tout the health and safety concerns that regulations address, promote their support for alternative energy sources and take another opportunity to paint Republicans as out of sync with the prevailing scientific views on climate change.


  • Climate change: Obama’s efforts to limit the power sector’s contribution to climate change is likely to be a top target for the Senate GOP. But this week’s vote may not be on whether to eliminate the Clean Power Plan rule altogether. Instead, expect McConnell (R-Ky.) to build on his recent efforts to convince governors to refuse to submit plans to EPA on how they would reduce emissions from existing power plants. An expected amendment from McConnell would block the agency from imposing its own plan on recalcitrant states, although a spokesman declined to confirm his plans yesterday. If energy and environment issues are to come up at all during the first 50 hours of debate, a McConnell amendment would be the most likely avenue.
  • Hydraulic fracturing: The Bureau of Land Management just last week finalized its requirement for oil and gas companies to disclose hydraulic fracturing chemicals and take other steps to protect water supplies (Greenwire, March 20). Even before the rule was published, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) led GOP colleagues in introducing legislation to stop it. The BLM rule is another top contender to see action this week. It’s also an issue where Republicans could cause political headaches for some of their opponents, such as Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who faces a tough re-election race next year in the gas-producing state.
  • Air quality: The recently proposed standard to tighten acceptable concentrations of ground-level ozone has struggled for years to gain momentum amid industry concern that it could handcuff various types of development around the country; EPA recently found that 46 areas around the country do not comply with the current standard. Obama punted on the rule once before, and Republicans are optimistic that there may be bipartisan consensus to block it again. The upcoming debate over a long-term transportation funding bill is seen as a likely venue to try blocking the rule, and an amendment vote this week would provide a handy whip count to help guide those efforts.
  • Water quality: The long-running saga over where the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction begins and ends will almost certainly continue to bedevil farmers, developers, environmentalists and anyone else who deals with regulation of streams and wetlands long after the budget debate is concluded. But opponents of EPA’s "Waters of the United States" rule — which the agency says is meant to clear up the confusion, but which critics pan as an overreaching power grab — could have another opportunity to demonstrate their displeasure. While an anti-WOTUS amendment could give some of the Republican freshmen a first chance to vote on the issue, it would be unlikely to pick up enough Democratic support to clear the vital 60-vote threshold that would be necessary to actually get any binding change over the Senate’s procedural hurdles.


  • Public health and safety: When Republicans complain that tough environmental regulations can cause companies to go out of business, expect Democrats to counter by reminding the public that they also can help children with asthma breathe. This could mean Democratic "side by sides" to anti-EPA amendments touting the good the agency does combating health problems associated with air and water pollution and the benefit that provides to the economy through reduced sick leave, among other factors. Democrats also may pursue their own amendments highlighting the dangers related to ongoing energy development and supporting rules to address concerns such as oil train derailments, pipeline leaks or pollution tied to the recent increase in oil and gas production, especially as it relates to hydraulic fracturing. During consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline bill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) secured a vote on an amendment to allow EPA to regulate fracking wells under federal drinking water law, and several senators have raised concerns about the spate of train derailments that have followed the dramatic rise in rail cars transporting crude oil.
  • Climate change: Democrats offered more than 15 amendments to the KXL bill related to climate change and secured a handful of votes that clarified Republicans’ views. Five GOP senators said human activity is a significant driver of climate change, 15 acknowledged at least a small role for humanity, and the majority of the caucus continue to dismiss the link altogether. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of his party’s leading voices on climate issues, said recently that he is eyeing the budget for more climate change votes, but details are still being finalized.
  • Oil company tax breaks: Democrats have long sought elimination of various tax incentives they see as "subsidies" for the major oil companies, such as their ability to deduct intangible drilling costs and their eligibility for a special domestic manufacturing tax break, but they have found no fans among Republicans. Bipartisan agreement can be found when it comes to a desire to eliminate the loophole that spares oil sands producers from paying into a spill liability trust fund, but nearly all Republicans bolted from the proposal when it was combined with the elimination of other tax breaks in an amendment Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) proposed in committee (E&E Daily, March 20). Amendments targeting the breaks likely will be raised again on the floor this week, but questions remain over how broadly they will be written and how Democrats would propose to spend the money raised from eliminating the tax breaks.
  • Clean energy: Depending on the details, proposals to support additional renewable energy development or energy efficiency programs can find bipartisan support, but Democrats tend to be more aggressively in favor of federal mandates, spending and tax credits to push new technologies into the marketplace. The KXL debate saw votes on a renewable energy standard, a five-year extension of the wind production tax credit and a proposal to establish new solar energy rebates, among other proposals.