With the clock ticking on the 114th Congress, House and Senate conferees will sit down this week for the first time in public to see whether they can buck the odds and pass the first comprehensive energy reform package in nearly a decade.
The chairmen and ranking members on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Natural Resources Committee spent weeks this summer discussing whether going to conference was worth the trouble.
Wary Senate Democrats eventually voted to launch the formal talks in July after a general agreement emerged that all the principal lawmakers wanted to reach a deal President Obama would sign (E&E Daily, July 13).
Informal staff discussions continued over the long August recess. But one Senate Democratic aide said that, as expected, they yielded no "breakthroughs."
Staff talks were meant to lay the groundwork for conferees to hit the ground running this month. Aides indicated they hoped to soon "close out" discussions on some provisions but noted that members would have to make any final calls.
Speaking during a renewable energy event near Fairbanks, Alaska, last month, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said the conference push had already defied expectations.
"They said, 'Lisa, you can't do it in an election year,' and I said, 'Time's a wastin'. We've gotta move,'" she said.
Thursday's inaugural meeting will not include debate over specific amendments or provisions, and members will be limited to two minutes of opening statements (Greenwire, Sept. 2).
Still, those statements will likely offer hints about whether the two chambers can reach a deal in the coming weeks. Even though key negotiators have fielded plenty of reporters' questions in recent months, the views of rank-and-file members are less known.
Top conferees include Murkowski and her ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a conferee, told E&E Daily in July that he was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for an agreement.
"I'm not going to tell you it's going to be easy, but at the end of the day, I think we've got a solid chance at getting reasonable minds to agree that this is a step forward," he said on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland (Greenwire, July 22).
Environmentalists, who urged Senate Democrats to vote against going to conference, are decidedly less optimistic about the prospects for a deal.
One environmentalist following the deliberations said there appeared to be few signs of tangible progress from the weeks of recent staff discussions.
"It is very clear there was not a lot of action over recess in terms of any meaningful attempt to conference these two bills," said the activist. "And so it's difficult to see how those two bodies get to yes, and whether or not, in fact, at least on the House Republican side, they want to get to yes."
Potential sticking points
Bishop, who opposes the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the Senate bill, is said to be steadfast in his position on the program.
He wants to see reforms included in any LWCF provisions. Bishop has also noted that last year's spending and tax deal extended the program for three years.
But the LWCF provisions in the Senate bill, S. 2012, attracted a large number of members from both parties to vote for the package in April. LWCF may be key to keeping that coalition intact.
The Senate and revised House legislation, H.R. 8, also contain key differences in the efficiency realm, and advocates last month urged negotiators to favor the energy-saving provisions in S. 2012 (Greenwire, Aug. 15).
Separately, major utility groups urged conferees over the recess to overhaul the permitting process for hydropower, which they said can take more than a decade to navigate (Greenwire, Aug. 17).
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, meanwhile, outlined provisions in both bills they'd like conferees to get rid of altogether (Greenwire, Aug. 8).
One wrinkle in the conference process is the surprise decision by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to retire from Congress effective this evening (Greenwire, Sept. 1).
As chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, Whitfield played a major role in assembling the House bill. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), the panel's vice chairman, is considered a leading contender to replace Whitfield atop the panel.
Olson, who is already an energy conferee, will lead tomorrow's Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing on the Federal Power Act.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Friday he will select a replacement for Whitfield on the conference committee.
Schedule: The meeting is Thursday, Sept. 8, at 9:30 a.m. in 106 Dirksen.
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