After half a decade in which the energy debate in Washington has been dominated by political posturing and produced almost no legislative action, both Democrats and Republicans who work on energy policy say they’re optimistic about prospects for a number of single-issue energy bills in this Congress.
The hope, they say, is that progress on some smaller-scale bills could restore the trust and relationships needed to build momentum for action on bigger bills.
Signs that something may be breaking loose in the energy deadlock come as members of Congress surprised even themselves last week by reaching bipartisan agreement on a stopgap budget bill absent the dramatic brinksmanship that has, until recently, dominated fiscal debate.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, told National Journal Daily he’s optimistic that, with the bitter politics of the presidential election behind them, lawmakers are now interested in actually passing legislation.
“What’s different now—beyond the fact that elections are a renewal—is that a very significant group of senators are coming up and saying, ‘We’ve just got to find a way to move ahead on energy,’ ” Wyden said. “Energy can’t just be an ongoing polarized bickerfest where everyone sits around and throws rotten fruit at each other.”
There’s a growing urgency among lawmakers to take on energy policy, in particular, since energy—where it comes from, how much it costs, how many jobs it generates—is central to the health of the economy. Also growing is the desire to address the fossil-fuel pollution that contributes to global warming.
Congress last passed a major energy law in 2007, but the provisions of that law don’t do much to address today’s most pressing issues, including high oil prices, greenhouse-gas emissions, and surging energy demand in countries such as China and India.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he’d like to prioritize movement of energy bills in his chamber. And the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has become a surprising oasis of bipartisan cooperation. Wyden and the panel’s top Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have developed what both senators call a warm, productive friendship, and the two are focused on forging bills that could gain enough support to pass the Senate with a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.
Wyden and Murkowski have also met in recent weeks with their House counterparts: House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.; his top lieutenant on energy issues, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.; and staff from the office of House Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Such a meeting may sound like it should be commonplace on Capitol Hill, but participants said they couldn’t recall the last time they’d been in a serious policy meeting with members of both parties and both chambers.
For the past two years, House Republicans have focused on energy chiefly as a political-messaging issue. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has spearheaded those efforts. Before the election, that meant moving a nonstop parade of bills focused on aggressively expanding oil drilling while handcuffing the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. The point, at the time, wasn’t to actually pass legislation (none of the bills had any chance of success in the Senate). It was to create talking points aimed at attacking Democrats running for office—particularly President Obama.
But now that the election is over, McCarthy is taking a different tack. His office has taken pains to point out that the first two energy bills that Republicans brought to the floor this year were not typical GOP “drill, baby, drill” measures; they were renewable energy bills. The intention, McCarthy said, was to send a message that, on this issue, Republicans are prepared to work with Democrats.
“If we lead with something else, like drilling, and were criticized, they wouldn’t listen to the rest of our energy policy,” McCarthy said. “Let’s first enter the places that we’re more united on. You crawl before you walk and you walk before your run. If you start out and build coalitions and build trust on both sides, we can keep doing the harder bills as we grow.”
Leaders in both parties and both chambers are quick to clarify that they don’t expect to see a major energy bill anytime soon—and that even single-issue energy proposals will meet plenty of obstacles. But they pointed to these five proposals as ideas that have legs.
The House has started a bipartisan caucus aimed at passing energy efficiency legislation—bills that would require buildings that provide the same amount of light and heat with less fuel, for example. The leaders of the caucus have serious political chops: Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado has been designated by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to serve as a point man for the GOP on energy issues. Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont is a staunch liberal with close ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. And in the Senate, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio is gaining traction. “People are tired of gridlock,” Gardner told NJ Daily. “You’re starting to see that frustration that members don’t have something to go home and show people. These energy bills are opportunities to show our constituents that we not only talk about it, we bring something home to show for it.”
This article appears in the March 26, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.