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By Brian Dabbs
Nov. 15 — The fate of months of legislative work on a potentially sprawling energy package will be determined in the coming weeks, and key negotiators are signaling arguably different impressions of the likelihood a deal this session.
Negotiators are set to meet Nov. 17 to gauge the possibilities of progress, Senate Energy Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 15.
Yet House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said the night before the package will “likely” fail to reach President Barack Obama’s desk before his tenure expires. Upton’s staff declined to comment on the meeting.
Wide gaps still exist between the two versions of the bill (S. 2012/H.R. 8), and President-elect Donald Trump’s surprise victory at the polls paves the way for a limited and unproductive lame-duck session, lawmakers said, indicating appropriations is the sole must-pass bill.
Upton said, as of late Nov. 14, he had not spoken with Senate Energy Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) about prospects for the legislation.
But Cantwell relayed hope for reconciliation.
“I think there’s a lot that members want to get done,” she told Bloomberg BNA. “In the Senate we have such a robust package, so like more than half the Senate have provisions in there.”
House and Senate lawmakers convened the first session of the conference—the process to reconcile differences between two companion bills—in early September. The energy bills address myriad issues, from revised Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval procedures for liquefied natural gas to vehicle innovation tied to clean energy.
Meanwhile, House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he envisioned a “path forward” in the lame-duck, according to Bloomberg Government.
Congressional staffers confirmed a remaining possibility for legislative movement. “If it’s dead, I don’t think a meeting would be taking place,” said a Senate staffer.
A compromise may, however, ultimately prove elusive, Upton said.
“With what happened last week, I think we regroup and come back next year,” Upton said. “We were committed to work on a bill that President Obama could sign. Now that he’s not going to be there in a couple of weeks, there’s a new chapter.”
Other conferees and energy-focused lawmakers appeared undecided on whether to delay the deliberations.
“I think we could do a bill, but we could also wait for the Trump administration,” Joe Barton (R-Texas), one of the lead House Republican conferees, told Bloomberg BNA. “If [Upton and Murkowski] want to move ahead, I support that.”
Despite modest Democratic gains in congressional elections, Republicans retained majorities in both chambers. Murkowski will remain head of her committee, while Upton faces a term limit.
“Chairman Murkowski is evaluating next steps for the energy bill,” committee spokeswoman Nicole Daigle told Bloomberg BNA. “She intends to do that in partnership with Alaskans and colleagues in Congress that she’s worked with throughout this process.”
The Obama administration hasn’t meddled substantially in energy bill negotiations, and therefore there isn’t a clear incentive to push legislative work into next session, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), a conferee and leading contender to replace Upton, told Bloomberg BNA.
Barton said a Republican administration inherently boosts a conservative agenda, pointing to the possibility that the White House pressured Senate Democrats to include certain provisions. For example, House Republicans have bitterly opposed permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a provision in the Senate bill. The fund, a National Park Service utility, absorbs revenue from offshore energy leasing for conservation management.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a House Democratic conferee, told Bloomberg BNA he may be able to convince a Trump administration to sign off on the fund’s permanency. DeFazio is the lead Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, and his support may prove critical in advancing Trump’s infrastructure campaign pledges.
A lack of Obama administration input, in fact, could be a reason for a derailed conference, Upton said.
“I’m not casting stones at the White House,” said Upton. But “I don’t think that we really heard a lot from the White House other than their statement of administration policy nearly a year ago. No one was pounding on my door, asking for this or that.”
The administration’s statement of policy tentatively supported the Senate legislation but strongly opposed the House bill.
With assistance from Rachel Leven
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