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Senate Energy Bill Shows Signs Of Hope Or Dark Omen

Oil drilling rigs in the middle of a wide prairie.
Stephanie Joyce


Remember the Washington spending battles over the past few years? The government shutdown is likely the most memorable, but every fall there’s a spending battle, usually an eleventh-hour bill to keep the government’s lights on for a few weeks and then an agreement to fund the government at the last minute. That annual dysfunction angers Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi who Chairs the Budget Committee. That’s why he’s ecstatic Republican leaders are bringing up the bill to fund the Interior and Energy Departments now.

“This is the earliest that any bills have ever been brought up and the leader promised that we would do them in consecutive order, all twelve of them, if possible—we’re running into some snags with it, but you always do when you’re passing bills. So if we do that, then we aren’t faced with a shutdown on October 1 and everybody knows what they can plan on for the year.”

Enzi is a proponent of changing the budget process from one year to two years like they do in Wyoming. He said if you look at Congress’ track record there’s really no other option.

“In the last four decades, we have only covered all 12 bills 4 times, so it’s not the habit. But it’s a habit we ought to get into. And if 12 in one year is too many to do we can break that down into six in each year, but each six would be for a two-year period. Again, the agencies could plan a lot more on what’s going to happen.”

Last year the House passed the bulk of its spending bills only to see them sit untouched in the Senate. Wyoming Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis said she’s excited the Senate is finally functioning again.

“Oh, I’m thrilled to see the Senate debating appropriation bills, given the fact that it has been a long time since they debated—had opportunities to amend these bills. It’s just a breath of fresh air.”

But this is an election year, and Lummis said she’s not holding her breath and expecting Congress to actually fund the government without having to pass a last-minute bill in the fall.

“We’ve never gotten through all the appropriations bills the entire eight years that I’ve been here. So I think my expectation bar is set pretty low that we will get through them all.”

In the past, Republicans would attach policy riders to spending bills to try to block the EPA and other agencies from implementing new regulations, but this year there doesn’t seem to be the appetite.

Lummis said all the policy riders they got passed in the last spending fight were stripped out at the last minute because of demands from the White House.

“I think it’s better for us to turn our attention to processes and to what we can accomplish in 2017 rather than spend a lot of floor time passing appropriations bills that are not gonna see the light of day.”

Wyoming’s Junior Senator John Barrasso said it’s easier for the GOP to cut funding for an agency through the regular spending process than it is to overturn a veto over their efforts to block regulations outright.

“I think it’s important to actually get appropriation bills to the president’s desk. You need 60 votes on those things, so on many you need some level of bipartisan support. We have put on the president’s desk issues that go after his clean climate plan. He’s vetoed that—we’ve gone after him on Waters of the United States, he’s vetoed that. And we don’t have the 67 votes to override a presidential veto; now we are going after it on the funding.”

The bill before the Senate provides money for the University of Wyoming – which licenses Wyoming Public Radio – for an economic development program that’s focused on rural states like Wyoming. It increases the program by about eleven million dollars over what the president wanted for the program. The legislation also about triples the president’s request for funding the Interior Department and Bureau of Reclamation on water issues, which are vital out west. Still the spending bill has gotten tied up. That frustrates Enzi.

"This ought to be the easy one to pass,” said Enzi.

Democratic leaders have blocked the bill because of an amendment they fear the GOP will offer that could derail the president’s Iran nuclear deal. The amendment, sponsored by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, would ban the White House from buying heavy water from Iran. See, heavy water is needed for nuclear programs, and under the agreement, Iran needs to get rid of heavy water, which practically means shipping it to Russia and the U.S. Enzi added that he’s not surprised that under the regular order the Senate is still moving slowly.

“Well, there are always some people that think they’ve got an amendment that would be critical to the United States and they’re not willing to put it off at all, even if it's gonna stop something that’s really critical like the appropriations.”

The energy and water spending bill face a test vote on Monday. If it passes, Wyoming lawmakers say it will mark a new day for doing business in Washington. If it’s blocked, the reality may set in that not much work is going to get done during this election year.

Based on Capitol Hill, Matt Laslo is a reporter who has been covering campaigns and every aspect of federal policy since 2006. While he has filed stories for NPR and more than 40 of its affiliates, he has also written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Campaigns and Elections Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Guardian, The Omaha World-Herald, VICE News and Washingtonian Magazine.
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