Down to the wire for Senate package

Source: Geof Koss and Hannah Hess, E&E repor • Posted: Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Senators from both parties are scrambling to save the bipartisan energy package from collapsing under the political weight of the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis.

With the Senate scheduled to move on to other business tomorrow morning, key senators huddled on the floor last night to talk strategy for providing federal assistance for Flint — a key demand of Democrats, who filibustered a pair of procedural motions for the underlying energy bill (S. 2012) last week to maintain leverage on the issue.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told E&E Daily last night that she and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are seeking an agreement that will allow them to continue to process other amendments to the bill while discussion of the various Flint amendments continues.

Murkowski plugged her own amendment, which would eventually hand Flint $550 million, with $50 million upfront. “I think that’s a good approach, a fair approach,” she said.

However, there are also serious discussions about a separate Flint aid package, which would disentangle the issue from the energy package.

“These are all avenues that are being pursued,” Murkowski said.

Cantwell said a separate Flint bill would help address a possible constitutional hurdle for tackling the issue in the energy package: the requirement that revenue measures originate in the House, which can “blue slip” Senate bills that run afoul of the rule.

But she was noncommittal on the option. “People are open to a lot of different ideas,” Cantwell told reporters, adding that she was more optimistic than she had been last week. “I think we’re closer than we were on Thursday.”

Sen. Gary Peters, who along with fellow Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow has been leading the charge on Flint in the upper chamber, told E&E Daily that progress had been made over the weekend.

“We have a deal structured,” he said last night. “I think we’re close, hopefully, to coming together. I think we have a framework that is workable.”

Peters and Stabenow both said that a separate Flint bill is a possibility. Senate aides say that would have the advantage of not having to wait for the energy bill to be conferenced with the House’s companion — delivering assistance to Flint sooner — but it would also require agreement from all senators to bring it to the floor quickly.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he is working on a revised version of his earlier amendment that would make funding from key water infrastructure programs available to states experiencing lead emergencies. Stabenow rejected Inhofe’s earlier proposal because it would have been offset by rescissions from the Energy Department’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program — which is key to Michigan.

Stabenow is “going to have a hard time getting her way on this” because of the size of grants she has proposed, Inhofe said. “We have something we’re going to throw out there that [the Congressional Budget Office] is scoring right now,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Murkowski has the “patience of Job” and praised her for continuing to work with Democrats. “So we haven’t given up,” Cornyn said.

“There’s a lot of Democrats who expressed concern about the ‘no’ vote on cloture and have been pushing on Senator Stabenow to come up with a solution on Flint, because this is very much a bipartisan bill,” he said.

Budget requests

The down-to-the-wire talks come ahead of today’s release of the Obama administration’s fiscal 2017 budget request, which is expected to call for a modest increase in U.S. EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

The administration yesterday also said it would request $1.8 billion to prepare for the Zika virus, which has been spreading through South and Central America. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday said an emergency funding request from the White House on the virus could also include aid for Flint (E&ENews PM, Feb. 8).

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the senior Democratic appropriator, said she backs emergency funding for combating the Zika virus and replacing lead-filled water pipes in Flint. “Let’s get the lead out of our pipes,” said Mikulski, adding that Congress should do more to protect the nation’s infrastructure.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he, too, thought a request for Zika funding would be an appropriate vehicle for helping Flint.

“I think that’s perfect,” he told E&E Daily yesterday. “Both of them are public health emergencies.”

But when asked if a White House request for funds for both issues would help disentangle the energy bill from the Flint fight, Durbin responded, “Only if it’s a must-pass vehicle.”

Reporter George Cahlink contributed.