WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional efforts to approve the first major energy bill in nearly a decade are in jeopardy amid a partisan dispute over oil drilling, water for drought-stricken California and potential rollback of protections for the gray wolf and other wildlife.
A bipartisan bill approved by the Senate in April would boost oil and natural gas production while encouraging renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and increased energy efficiency.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the overwhelming 85-12 Senate vote "a significant victory that brings us much closer to our goal of modernizing our nation's energy policies," while Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the panel's senior Democrat, said the measure was "urgently needed."
But the bill's prospects dimmed after the House approved a series of election-year amendments last month that promote Republican priorities, such as increased drilling for oil and gas and overriding protections for the gray wolf and other species under the Endangered Species Act. The House bill also would promote hunting and fishing on federal lands, shift more water to California farmers and cut the flow for threatened fish.
The House proposal includes at least seven measures that the White House strongly opposes or has threatened to veto.
House leaders have named 40 lawmakers to serve on a joint House-Senate committee to negotiate a final agreement, but Democrats are threatening to use a procedural motion to scuttle Senate action unless the GOP amendments are withdrawn.
"I wish they could do something besides legislation that has been already circled for veto pen action by the president," Cantwell said after the House vote. A House-Senate "conference that starts with that as the baseline is not going to be a productive effort."
Senators from both parties are expected to discuss the bill at closed-door luncheons on Tuesday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House-approved bill was nothing more than "a partisan, special interest package that fails to invest in infrastructure, leads to more energy consumption and carbon pollution, stacks the deck against the environment and ... undermines protections for our public lands and wildlife."
Republicans defended the measure.
"This bill is about jobs. It's about keeping energy affordable. It's about boosting our energy security, here and across the globe," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Eight Democrats joined 233 Republicans to support the bill, while 178 lawmakers— including six Republicans — opposed it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the GOP bill "modernizes our energy infrastructure so we can address urgent priorities for the country, from tackling California's drought crisis to healing our forests in order to prevent wildfires."
The next steps are unclear.
"It's really hard to see how this thing moves forward," said Marc Boom, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "I don't see why senators who worked very hard on a bipartisan process would want to get into the (negotiating) room with a partisan product" like the House bill.
Even so, Murkowski professed optimism, especially given the overwhelming vote in the Senate. "There's just so much good in this, let's figure out how we can get going," she said.
Cantwell did not rule out participation by Senate Democrats in a House-Senate conference, but said, "A 21st-century energy policy has nothing to do with rolling back environmental laws. It should be about smart investments in American infrastructure, innovation and new technologies."
Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, strongly opposed the Senate bill, especially proposals to support renewable energy and extend authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which protects parks and other public lands.
While Heritage is confident that House Republicans will hold the line on the bill, Democratic efforts to scuttle the measure may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, spokesman Dan Holler said. "If the result of Democrat obstructionism is that they snuff out awful policy, that's fine with us," he said.
Phil Sharp, a former Democratic congressman who now serves as president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, said the energy bill poses "a real test" for Congress, especially Ryan and other House GOP leaders.
"Do they think they are there to legislate and make progress, or do they want to make a statement about themselves?" Sharp said. "Speaker Ryan suggests this is an important priority for him. We'll see if that suggests action."
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