Senate Energy Spending Bill Stalls Over Iran Amendment

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By Amena H. Saiyid

April 27 — The Senate was unable to end debate on the $37.5 billion energy and water appropriations bill after Republicans pushed an amendment to block the Department of Energy from using funds to purchase heavy water from Iran.

The 50-46 vote, well short of the 60 votes needed to end debate on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act (H.R. 2028), derailed action on the bill itself.

The full Senate cannot vote on the underlying bill until cloture is invoked or until Republicans and Democrats agree on how to handle the heavy water amendment offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

Heavy water is used in nuclear reactors to slow down the fissile process. It also is used to make plutonium and develop medicines. U.S. purchases of heavy water from Iran were part of the international agreement reached in 2015 that was intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

McConnell Accuses Democrats of ‘Obstruction.’

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decried the failed cloture vote, saying the Democrats have come up with yet another way to “blow up” the appropriations process.

“I think we've come up with yet another definition of obstruction today,” McConnell said on the Senate floor following the vote. “Our Democratic friends are going to prevent the passage of an Energy and Water Appropriations bill because of an amendment that is not yet pending to the bill.”

Prior to the vote, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water is managing H.R. 2028 on the floor, urged Democrats to give Cotton's amendment a chance because it was germane to the bill.

He said Cotton's amendment was only restricting the use of fiscal year 2017 funds, not prior year appropriations. Moreover, Alexander said, Cotton also agreed to remove language from his amendment that would restrict U.S. businesses from obtaining export licenses to purchase heavy water from Iran.

Floor Vote on Controversial Measures Allowed

Alexander said he agreed to work with Democrats, particularly Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the subcommittee's ranking member, during the committee process to exclude any controversial policy riders from the bill and to allow such measures to be subjected to a 60-vote measure on the Senate floor.

The president can veto the underlying bill if he doesn't like it, but “senators should be allowed to offer germane amendments,” Alexander said.

Cotton said his amendment was in response to the Energy Department's announcement over the weekend to purchase heavy water from Iran.

The U.S. already buys heavy water from India and Canada, according to Feinstein.

She said that the White House would veto the bill if this amendment was added.

A day prior to the cloture vote, Earnest said heavy water wasn't radioactive and didn't pose a public concern.

White House `Gratified' With Vote

During an April 27 briefing, the White House spokesman said he was “gratified” with the Senate vote, adding that “we've made clear our commitment to a principle that ideologically motivated policy writers are not appropriate for appropriations bills.”

Earnest said Cotton had made repeated attempts to undermine the Iran agreement.

“I'm confident that he couldn't differentiate heavy water from sparkling water,” he said.

“His focus is on undermining the effective implementation of this agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said, but he stopped short of saying whether White House would veto the spending bill.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called Cotton's proposal a “poison pill” amendment that would halt work on the bill to fund federal energy and water management programs for fiscal year 2017.

Reid dismissed Alexander's plea, saying the “whole world is germane to this bill.”

‘Eleventh Hour’ Amendment

Assistant Minority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged Alexander's argument that Cotton had a right to offer an amendment. That said, Durbin noted that Cotton offered his amendment at the “eleventh hour,” and that the amendment was aimed at jettisoning the U.S.-Iran agreement that the Obama administration reached last summer over the objections of all Republicans in Congress.

“Let us finish this bill in a calm fashion, not in a confrontational fashion,” Durbin urged.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a senior member of the Senate Democratic leadership who opposed the U.S.-Iran deal, said the onus is on the Republicans to fix the impasse over the spending measure. He urged Cotton to exercise his right to secure a vote on his amendment, but “don't do it using the appropriations process as a hostage to move forward.”

Until the Cotton amendment came into play, Democrats and Republicans were moving toward passage of the spending measure, which as McConnell noted would have been the first spending bill to be approved by the Senate this year.

Spending Reduced by Scoring Adjustments

The measure would appropriate $30.7 billion for the Department of Energy, $6 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers and $1.2 billion for the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation. The total amount for energy and water programs recommended by the Senate Appropriations Committee totals $38.4 billion, but the actual cost of the bill was reduced to $37.5 billion because of scoring adjustments.

Other bill highlights include language that would authorize interim nuclear storage sites and restore wind energy development research levels at the Energy Department to the prior fiscal year levels of $95.4 million (80 ECR, 4/26/16).

Also adopted on voice vote were several amendments related to water management in the Colorado River system.

One of those amendments, offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would authorize the Interior and Agriculture departments along with the National Academy of Sciences to study and develop a plan to eradicate water-intensive, non-native salt cedar trees from the Lower Colorado River Basin.

According to the Central Arizona Project, there are more than 120,000 acres of salt cedar in the drought-stricken region. If all salt cedar trees were removed and replaced with native vegetation, an estimated 860,000 acre feet of water would be reclaimed.

Also adopted was an amendment by Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) that would authorize the corps to use up to $2 million to implement Upper Missouri River Basin flood and drought monitoring systems. The purpose of this measure is to give localities early flood warnings and to avoid hurried evacuations.

The Senate also overwhelmingly adopted a bipartisan amendment by Reid and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to appropriate $450 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to construct dams and other reservoirs to store water on condition that $50 million of that sum be kept aside to allow pilot projects to augment water supplies in Lake Mead and other related water reservoirs along the Colorado River.

Schumer told Bloomberg BNA that he was confident that a deal could be reached on the energy-water spending measure.

“I think it will get done,” Schumer said. “Look, it's up to Leader McConnell to tell Cotton that this is not the time or place for it.”

Schumer ruled out the possibility of Democrats allowing a vote on the amendment with the 60-vote threshold. “It's a poison pill amendment. And even if we do, the president will veto it, and we won't have a bill.”

To contact reporter: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com