‘Anybody’s guess’ what conferees can agree on — Murkowski

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 8, 2016

Energy conferees will formally meet this morning for the first time, following weeks of wide-ranging staff discussions that have some members cautiously optimistic that a compromise between the House and Senate energy bills can be brokered before the end of the year.

But it remains to be seen whether the push to enact the first major energy bill in nearly a decade can transcend the deep policy divides between the two chambers.

Each conferee will have two minutes to lay out their views, with the option of submitting longer written comments for the record. No bill text or amendments will be considered (Greenwire, Sept. 2).

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) will replace Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who retired from the House this week, as a conferee, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said yesterday.

The meeting comes after weeks of staff discussions during the recent recess that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is also chairing the conference, said covered “all aspects of the bill.”

“I think we have been pleasantly surprised at how much work we have been able to get in before we reconvened,” she told E&E Daily yesterday. “These next couple weeks are going to be very busy. The number of meetings will probably double what we have done already at this point in time.”

Murkowski expressed confidence that the conference process will yield something that can be sent to the president but cautioned that it remains a work in progress.

“I think we have a good solid construct for an energy bill coming out of conference that we can develop,” she said. “What is going to be included in that final report is anybody’s guess at this point in time.”

Other conferees were fairly upbeat about the prospects for a deal.

“There’s still lots of areas where we can find some low-hanging fruit, common agreement,” House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told E&E Daily yesterday, saying he’s “optimistic and positive” on the conference.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is representing the Senate GOP leadership in the conference talks, drew parallels between the effort and the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, which may move through the chamber this week (see related story).

“I just think it would be good for us to get this done,” Cornyn said yesterday. “I don’t think this is particularly controversial at this point, and it’s kind of like the [WRDA] bill, something that we could get done that would be a significant accomplishment.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources panel, told reporters this week that recent discussions have focused on the House provisions. “We’re really just starting to dig in with the House,” she said.

However, she signaled a willingness to negotiate on Western drought provisions — an issue injected into the energy debate by Bishop and one that was discussed extensively over the recess.

“I think the issue is there’s so many areas of the country where we’ve taken small consensus approaches about next steps that really will add capacity, and I think they’re still kind of in confrontation with the parties in their state,” Cantwell said. “So we want to talk to them, we want to get something done there, but it can’t be a my-way-or-the-highway approach because there’s so many of these interests within each state.”

She noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is continuing to work to try to reach a deal among California interests on the issue.

Bishop said Congress should do what it can to tackle drought.

“You can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” he said. “It’s got to be solved sometime. And Feinstein is close to an agreement. You’ve been so close to an agreement in the past — for hell’s sakes, take this opportunity to finish it and do it.”

A Democratic aide closely following the discussions said yesterday that staff talks have identified areas within the scope of the conference that both sides feel can yield some sort of a deal.

“The hard work of figuring out what we can live with is already done. We know what a consensus bill would look like,” the aide said, but added, “we’re not sure what will happen to make it a good bill.”

Bishop’s opposition to the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund contained in the Senate bill remains a sticking point, as do differences in the efficiency titles of both bills.

Ahead of today’s meeting, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups laid out a wish list for the efficiency provisions they’d like to see in the final product.

Despite some signs of progress at the staff level, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said yesterday that the principal conferees haven’t spoken since before the break.

“We’ll see where we are,” he said yesterday.

Reporter George Cahlink contributed.