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Energy Bill’s Failure Shows Congress Can’t Agree to Agree

May 13, 2014

Failure of Energy Bill Shows U.S. Lawmakers Can’t Agree

Wind turbines in Lowville, New York. Photographer: Ron Antonelli/Bloomberg

The sponsors of a bill to promote U.S. energy conservation built it to pass in a Congress where almost nothing passes.

After businesses complained, the authors deleted mandates for tougher building-efficiency standards. Then they cut provisions that would have increased the U.S. deficit. And they softened requirements that federal buildings phase out use of fossil fuels.

With the changes, Senators Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, built a coalition that included seven Republicans and seven Democrats as co-sponsors, and both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And it still wasn’t enough.

Deep divisions on issues unrelated to the bill -- such as the Keystone XL pipeline and regulations on the coal industry -- doomed it yesterday. The result underscores that even legislation with broad support faces an uphill fight as both parties eye midterm elections that will determine control of Congress.

“I see this as a good example of the extent to which almost everything has a partisan overlay too these days,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Either a bill will have no obvious partisan content and it will still become an us-versus-them matter, or a bipartisan effort will turn partisan.”

Optimism Fades

Advocates thought Shaheen-Portman was one of the few energy bills that had a chance of passing a Democratic-led Senate and a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans. Pieces have already passed the House, leaving a chance lawmakers could hash out their differences in a conference committee had the Senate advanced the legislation.

Such an event is becoming increasingly rare. Congress has only passed 100 laws this session, on pace to break the modern record for inactivity set last session, according to a record of votes on the Library of Congress’s website.

For clean-energy advocates such as Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at The Third Way, a nonprofit group that says it advocates moderate public policies, the difficulty in advancing Shaheen-Portman is especially dispiriting because it came a week after a U.S. report warned climate change is already affecting the economy.

Coastal Flooding

The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has contributed to coastal flooding, heavier downpours and more intense wildfire episodes, according to the report, released May 6 by the White House.

“Each day the midterm elections get closer, more of what was once possible becomes impossible,” Freed said in an e-mail.

The Shaheen-Portman bill was first introduced in 2011. Earlier iterations had federal mandates and would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars.

The 134-page bill considered yesterday instead became a series of guidelines, test programs and inducements to promote energy conservation, reducing greenhouse gases and saving consumers and businesses money.

It sought to increase efficiency for residential and commercial buildings that account for 41 percent of the nation’s energy use, according to a summary published by the NRDC.

Shy Votes

The measure would have directed the White House to work with federal agencies to cut their energy, including through the consolidation of power-wasting data centers, and encouraged retrofits of schools. The Senate voted 55-36 last night to advance the bill, five short of the 60 needed.

The NRDC, which lobbies for action on climate change, said in a summary of the measure posted on its website that the bill would be “helpful” and benefit consumers and the environment.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed caps on carbon dioxide, called the bill “sensible” in a letter it sent last month signed by about 100 businesses and trade groups.

“The bill’s sponsors have worked with industry every step of the way in crafting and vetting this legislation,” the letter states.

Democrats blamed Republicans for demanding votes on a series of amendments, including those pushed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky designed to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from enacting rules that could hurt coal producers in his state.

‘Never Enough’

“Has the minority had a chance to be part of this process? Absolutely,” Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said on the Senate floor last week. “Yet it is never, never enough.”

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and president of MWR Strategies in Midlothian, Virginia, said the blame rests with Reid, who didn’t want his members to take tough votes before an election.

“It is not that Washington is broken,” McKenna said in an e-mail. “It is that Senator Reid is afraid of the democratic process. You know, people vote for or against things and then their constituents know where they stand and make their own decisions accordingly.”

With little legislation moving in Congress, bills like Shaheen-Portman that have a chance become a magnet for other issues favored by lawmakers -- sometimes at the peril of the legislation.

Consideration of the energy efficiency has previously been held up by lawmakers who wanted to add an amendment to force approval of the Keystone pipeline to bring Canadian heavy crude to U.S. refineries, for example.

Keystone Vote

Reid agreed to allow a separate Keystone vote this time, but wanted to limit amendments to the Shaheen-Portman bill during debate. McConnell wanted votes on amendments to block proposed EPA rules that would cut carbon emissions from power plants.

On the Senate floor May 6, Reid equated Republicans with greased pigs at rodeos -- tough to corral. Today, Reid said the Senate had lost a “great opportunity to pass energy efficiency.”

He was among those voting against advancing the measure last night, a maneuver that permits him to call up the bill later under Senate rules.

Reid said today that the offer to allow a separate vote on Keystone remained in place, if Republicans relented and agreed to permit the energy conservation bill to advance.

‘Washington’s Dysfunction’

Portman released a statement after yesterday’s vote saying the “failure to move forward on a bipartisan energy efficiency bill is yet another disappointing example of Washington’s dysfunction.”

Energy bills have been particularly scarce in recent years. Congress hasn’t passed a major measure since 2007 when it set new efficiency standards for cars and production targets for ethanol.

Suzanne Watson, policy director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes conservation, said that’s left a “pent-up demand” from senators searching for legislative vehicles to push energy programs they favor, jeopardizing the Shaheen-Portman bill.

“It’s the first energy bill of any significance to reach this point in consideration in many a year,” she said.

The bill is S. 2262.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Snyder in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at Steve Geimann

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