Senate energy bill looks bipartisan for now, but can that last?

U.S. Capitol

The sharply divided Senate has a real shot at doing something unexpected — passing bipartisan energy legislation in an election year. It won’t happen though, unless both parties can resist the temptation to lard up the bill with more partisan goodies.

Already, Democrats have talked about amendments relating to Puerto Rico’s debt woes or millions of dollars in funding to address the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, while Republican are looking at preventing the Interior Department from halting some coal leasing or spiking the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The energy legislation, S. 2012, which is backed by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and the panel’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, would encourage energy efficiency upgrades of schools, speed up licensing of hydroelectric power projects and permits for liquid natural gas exports.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reidof Nevada called it “a good bill” last week. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said it was “the latest reminder of what’s possible with cooperation in this Senate.”

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At the same time, lawmakers have proposed more than 150 amendments to the bill, including some from both parties that could jeopardize the entire measure. It’s a particularly tempting target since it’s one of the first major pieces of legislation so far this year that appears to have a serious chance at Senate passage.

Asked whether some of those amendments could derail the bill’s odds of passage, Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said, “It could.”

“Mitch McConnell says — and I agree — we should have an open amendment process,” Durbin, of Illinois, said of the Senate Majority Leader. “Let’s have this debate, that is part of what the Senate is all about is to debate the issues of the moment.”

Durbin said he’d support amending the energy measure to help Puerto Rico — if Cantwell, who has also backed allowing Puerto Rico to restructure its debt — decided the bill was the “right venue or forum” for the matter, he said. Bryan Watt, a Cantwell spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to an email asking if she was open to such an amendment.

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Republicans haven’t been shy about their own desire to use the bipartisan bill to fight Obama administration energy actions. Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said the measure could be used to fight a recent announcement from the Interior Department that they planned to temporarily halt new coal mining leases on federal land.

“In a sense that is going to just be sending pink slips to thousands of people who earn their living and their livelihood with coal,” Barrasso told reporters last month. “This energy bill will be an opportunity to speak out with amendments specifically related to the president’s most recent actions.”

Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who leads the Senate Finance Committee, pitched amending the energy bill to block the ban unless Congress approves and Interior officials can show it wouldn’t reduce federal revenue.

J.P. Freire, a Hatch spokesman, called the temporary ban on coal leasing on public lands “an outrage” and said the amendment is a “reasonable approach to addressing this overbearing executive action.” Many of Hatch’s Senate colleagues are studying the proposal, he said in an email.

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Democrats led by Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters unveiled plans Thursday to try to amend the bill to include as much as $400 million in federal emergency funding to help replace or fix Flint’s lead-tainted water supply infrastructure. Their amendment’s provisions also include creating a Center of Excellence on Lead Exposure to focus on the needs of those exposed to lead — and providing $200 million in funding over 10 years for the center.

“We’re begging, we’re pleading with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle” to support the Flint measures, Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said at the Thursday press conference. “We welcome our colleagues to join us.”

The cost of those provisions could be a stumbling block to its success, if Democrats aren’t able to recommend equivalent savings elsewhere in the legislation.

“Any amendment that costs money,” Murkowski said Thursday on the Senate floor. “You’re going to need to find a viable offset in order for us to consider it.”

Durbin said Thursday that Democrats were “still waiting” to see if any Republicans would sign on to the Flint amendment. Stabenow said she’s spoken to Murkowski, and that she was supportive of some of the Flint amendment provisions.

“We’ll work very hard to get that vote,” Stabenow said when asked if Democrats had a commitment to a Senate floor vote on the proposal.

Michael Tadeo, a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee spokesman, said Murkowski is “committed to working with her Senate colleagues to help the people of Flint, Michigan.” He didn’t say whether she was open to allowing a vote on amending the legislation to provide funding for the Flint water crisis.

Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican, said the Flint amendment would be problematic for two reasons.

“One, I’m not sure it’s germane,” Perdue said in an interview in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. “The second reason is obviously the people in Flint are having trouble, but this is new spending and right now until we get a handle on what we’re going to do about this debt crisis, we’re borrowing that money that’d be sent to Flint. That’s the reality of where we are.”

He said a potential Puerto Rico amendment “certainly isn’t germane” and he hopes the energy measure isn’t derailed by partisan efforts.

“Its been worked hard in committee just like the energy bill last year was,” Perdue said. “I hope neither side puts these amendments that are not germane on there. I think we’ve got a good solid bill.”

Murkowski has said the Energy panel considered more than 59 different amendments to the bill in July and lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid of proposals to change the bill.

“We’ve encouraged members to bring forward their amendments,” Murkowski said last week. “What we need to do now is work together to get these amendments in a process and move us forward in a way that meets the demand.”

Catherine Traywick and Steven T. Dennis contributed.