Late in the afternoon on Dec. 6, the Senate did something unlikely — it unanimously cleared an energy bill.
Perhaps more striking was the lopsided 398-2 vote in the House a day earlier to pass the same measure (HR 6582).
While the package of energy efficiency provisions was decidedly modest in scope, its success was still notable given the political gridlock surrounding energy policy in the 112th Congress. Supporters see it as a foundation on which the next Congress can build.
“Energy efficiency can bridge the partisan divide,” Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan said.
The bill mandates technical changes to federal energy efficiency standards for appliances such as water heaters and requires better coordination of Energy Department research programs. Yet, enacting even this bare-bones legislation required months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering , underscoring just how bitter the debate over energy policy has become.
Efficiency, long considered the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to reducing energy demand, and consequently greenhouse gas emissions, has typically enjoyed strong bipartisan backing.
“When you think about those ways and those areas we can actually make a difference with energy and cost of energy, it’s by using less,” Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who co-authored part of the bill headed to President Barack Obama’s desk, said last week. “It’s just so straightforward.”
Regardless of political persuasion or geography, “everybody benefits from efficiency,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told reporters last month. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Yet, in the past two years, even efficiency got caught up in the hyperpartisan fighting over Solyndra, the economic stimulus and Obama’s “war on coal.” GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite, set the tone during a March 2011 hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, when he railed against federal efficiency standards that he blamed for poorly flushing toilets and expensive light bulbs.
“I blame you and people like you who want to tell me what I can install in my house,” he lectured an Energy Department witness.
Egged on by Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives, House Republicans last December insisted that an omnibus appropriations bill include a policy rider barring new efficiency standards for light bulbs from taking effect as scheduled in January. Obama ultimately signed the prohibition, and it continues over objections of the lighting industry, which had helped negotiate the standards enacted in 2007 with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Adding insult to injury, one of the Republicans leading the push to repeal the lighting standards, Rep. Michael C. Burgess of Texas, is an honorary vice chairman of the Alliance to Save Energy, which played a central role in getting the standards enacted.
Despite the difficult House political dynamics, Shaheen and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, labored patiently for 18 months on building support for their own comprehensive energy efficiency measure.
Their effort could be considered a textbook case on how to pass a bill.
To win approval by the Energy panel, they tweaked the bill to address industry concerns about some of the proposed standards. To mollify deficit concerns, they even added language cutting authorized spending levels elsewhere in the federal government to offset the spending allowed under their own measure.
The pair also assembled the support of dozens of interest groups from across the political spectrum, as varied as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Despite their pleas to Senate leaders and their respective colleagues, Shaheen and Portman were unable to secure floor time for the bill, in large part over fears of a flood of contentious amendments.
As a backup plan, they chose the least controversial provisions from the bill and packaged them with other efficiency language from a separate bipartisan bill sponsored by Murkowski and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. That bill moved through the Senate by unanimous consent in September, prompting bicameral, bipartisan talks that led to the more pared-down version sent to the president’s desk last week.
Still, Rob Mosher, director of government relations for the Alliance to Save Energy, said the measure’s success is a milestone. “It’s important to advance energy efficiency policy in a bipartisan manner, and that’s what this bill accomplishes,” he said.
GOP House Energy and Commerce Committee aides say efficiency is clearly an area of “common ground,” though they predict the Shaheen-Portman bill will need some “reworking” to move through that chamber.
Shaheen said recently that she and Portman planned to huddle soon to discuss strategy for the next year, including whether changes to their broader bill are needed. Murkowski, meanwhile, said a comprehensive energy bill that she plans to offer next year will include a substantial title on reducing consumption.
“When we were kicking around first drafts, I said, ‘You can’t have such a short provision on efficiency. We need to beef it up,’” Murkowski said.
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