With Syria on Hold, Senate Settles for Energy Debate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at the Capitol.
National Journal
Amy Harder
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Amy Harder
Sept. 11, 2013, 6:07 p.m.

Pro­ponents of an en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill may want to thank Rus­sia for their meas­ure fi­nally get­ting its long-awaited day in the Sen­ate.

Be­cause of the im­promptu dip­lo­mat­ic talks triggered by Rus­sia that are un­der way in hopes of resolv­ing the Syr­i­an con­flict, the Sen­ate has put on the back burn­er a res­ol­u­tion to au­thor­ize mil­it­ary ac­tion against the Middle East­ern coun­try. In­stead, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon moved to a bi­par­tis­an en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill that the Sen­ate had planned to de­bate this week be­fore the Syr­i­an de­bate es­cal­ated.

“I think it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that rather than sit here and tread wa­ter and do noth­ing, we should move for­ward on this le­gis­la­tion,” Re­id said on the Sen­ate floor in ref­er­ence to the bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D”‘N.H., and Rob Port­man, R-Ohio.

That wasn’t ex­actly a rous­ing in­tro­duc­tion to this en­ergy de­bate, but the meas­ure’s au­thors and the lead­ers of the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee are non­ethe­less seiz­ing the mo­ment.

“It’s es­sen­tially the first stand-alone en­ergy bill to be de­bated on the floor of the Sen­ate since 2007,” said En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Chair­man Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Com­par­ing today’s en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency meas­ure to the 2007 mam­moth of a bill is like apples to or­anges (or grapes to wa­ter­mel­ons). The en­ergy bill the Sen­ate is de­bat­ing now is 30 pages long, and has fully off­set costs and just one man­dat­ory meas­ure: to make the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s use of en­ergy more ef­fi­cient. The bill also in­cludes a host of vol­un­tary meas­ures, such as strength­en­ing na­tion­al build­ing codes and dir­ect­ing the En­ergy De­part­ment to en­cour­age de­vel­op­ment of en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency tech­no­logy.

In con­trast, the 2007 bill was 310 pages long, cost the gov­ern­ment mil­lions of dol­lars, and sig­ni­fic­antly strengthened both the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard for gas­ol­ine and fuel-eco­nomy stand­ards for vehicles.

Today, Re­pub­lic­ans are al­most uni­ver­sally op­posed to fed­er­al man­dates of all kinds, and Demo­crats aren’t go­ing to bat for them like they used to.

“Nobody is go­ing to be able to say this is part of a dumb fed­er­al man­date or some kind of run-from-Wash­ing­ton, one-size-fits-all ap­proach,” Wyden said.

A few minutes later, En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources rank­ing mem­ber Lisa Murkow­ski, R-Alaska, took to the floor to say: “I would not be sup­port­ing any pro­vi­sion if it re­quired man­dat­ory ad­op­tion of those [ef­fi­ciency] codes. But this bill is vol­un­tary.”

The bill has sup­port from a wide range of groups, in­clud­ing the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil. Its de­tract­ors are few, but among them is the free-mar­ket Her­it­age Found­a­tion, which claims the bill en­cour­ages waste­ful pro­grams and in­cent­ives.

The like­li­hood of this meas­ure’s pas­sage hinges much less on its sub­stance — which most sen­at­ors sup­port — and more on oth­er cir­cum­stances, namely what con­tro­ver­sial amend­ments may be offered and wheth­er the Sen­ate re­fo­cuses its at­ten­tion on Syr­ia.

It was un­clear by press time Wed­nes­day even­ing which con­ten­tious amend­ments, in­clud­ing one ap­prov­ing the Key­stone XL oil pipeline and an­oth­er strip­ping the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency of its power to reg­u­late green­house-gas emis­sions, might get votes. Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., ob­jec­ted to al­low­ing more amend­ments Wed­nes­day un­til a deal was worked out on one he offered re­lated to Obama­care.

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