House, Senate Seek Careful Bipartisan Balance as Energy Bills Advance

The House and Senate are taking slightly different approaches to moving energy bills through their chambers, but both have the same goal — to get President Barack Obama to sign bipartisan legislation reflecting the United States’ newfound position as a major energy producer.

But will it last in a Republican-controlled Congress that is eager to promote the domestic oil and gas boom while bucking efforts by the administration to address climate change?

Both bills aim to boost the reliability and resilience of U.S. energy infrastructure such as the electric grid and pipelines while promoting energy efficiency across the economy. The Senate bill stretches into renewable energy — declaring hydropower a clean resource for purposes of federal programs — while also hastening the Department of Energy permitting process for exporting liquefied natural gas overseas.

“This [House draft] bill is a reasonable start, but it is by no means complete,” House Energy and Commerce ranking Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey said during last week’s subcommittee markup.

So far, neither chamber’s committee is touching the most controversial energy issues that would be sure to roil Democrats and possibly derail any compromise. Language approving the Keystone XL pipeline, lifting the ban on crude oil exports and delaying or blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan doesn’t appear in either the Senate or House measure, though the EPA does not fall under the Senate panel’s jurisdiction.

But it will likely be difficult to maintain the delicate balance between keeping poison-pill provisions off the bills while achieving GOP policy priorities — especially in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has a history of moving energy legislation without the support of the minority.

“The product that you have before you is a product of common ground,’’ Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski told reporters last week. “You will note that there’s a lot of things that you might have expected a Republican from Alaska to include in a bill that has my name on it,” citing the exclusion of language to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

“But I also acknowledge that a base bill that’s going to be a bipartisan bill must be something that has support from all sides,” she added.

As talks with Democrats continue, the House bill is a more modest effort than committee Republicans originally intended, and they are still interested in addressing issues such as electric capacity markets, crude oil exports and efficiency standards for buildings, House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., said after the July 22 markup.

“We’re just going to make a good-faith effort through staff and even members trying to address some of these issues and make this bill more comprehensive than what it is today,” he said.

Murkowski has promised an open amendment process during this week’s markup of her comprehensive energy legislation, and she’s looking to another committee’s recent legislative process for inspiration.

Murkowski told reporters on July 23 she’s made it clear to her colleagues she wants to move a bipartisan bill out of committee, as she aims to be the first panel leader to advance a major energy policy bill since 2007.

She plans to model her approach on that used by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington to unanimously advance a sweeping rewrite (S 1177) of the K-12 education policy No Child Left Behind. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill on July 16, 81-17.

The Senate energy bill is a wide-ranging offering that, among other things, would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and make changes to the Energy Department’s loan-guarantee program.

Scores of amendments will likely be offered during the markup of the 357-page bill, which will occur over at least two days — Tuesday and Thursday — this week. Democrats may want to see a greater focus on renewable energy and climate change, while Republicans could seek to include more provisions related to domestic oil and gas production.

While the HELP Committee considered nearly 60 amendments to the education bill, senators deferred the most controversial amendments to the floor debate to avoid sinking the carefully constructed deal between Alexander and Murray. Murkowski called that “a pretty good model” for keeping legislation bipartisan while giving members an opportunity for debate.

“I’m not going to suggest that members on either side would want to introduce poison pills, but I think there are those issues that come up that just make things more difficult for one side or another,” she said.

Murkowski has plenty of other issues she’d like to include in her bill that didn’t make the cut, such as eliminating oil export restrictions. For now, she’s keeping those efforts on separate tracks.

A few provisions made it into the bill that may cause heartburn for some Democrats, particularly language to hasten the Energy Department process for approving natural gas exports and the repeal of a requirement written into the 2007 energy law (PL 110-140) for new and significantly modified federal buildings to consume power from zero-carbon resources by 2030.

While those provisions were included, Murkowski noted that both she and Cantwell negotiated some things into the legislation that the other may not have necessarily wanted.

“There is a process to building legislation, and we can’t tell you how it works, or we’d get in trouble,” she said.

In the House, Pallone has said he and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., have an agreement that both sides must sign off on provisions to be included in the legislation at the committee level. That won’t be easy, but members are hoping that recent bipartisan collaborations on chemical regulation and medical research that netted wins on the House floor will grease the wheels for a breakthrough on energy policy, too.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to agree on everything, but we are motivated to do that,” Whitfield said last week. “We do have some deep philosophical differences, but the issues are not that complex, really.”

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