Murkowski: House chose party over energy policy

  • By ELWOOD BREHMER
  • Monday, December 19, 2016 10:33pm
  • News

Sen. Lisa Murkowski accused House leaders of forgoing negotiations on her overarching energy policy bill to begin holiday celebrations early.

Still steaming more than a week after it became clear her signature piece of legislation would die in the lame duck session of Congress, Murkowski said in a Dec. 16 interview that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, chose to adjourn the House Dec. 8 to attend a holiday party in New York rather than round up votes for final passage of the final House-Senate conference committee version of her Energy Policy Modernization Act.

According to Murkowski, Ryan and other House Republicans had tickets for a Dec. 8 train from Washington, D.C., to New York City that they didn’t want to miss and thus what would have been the first federal energy reform package in nearly 10 years was left for dead in the last hours of a nearly two-year journey.

“The Speaker said ‘We’ve run out of time’ because they wanted to get on the party train,” Murkowski said.

A spokesperson for Ryan could not be reached for comment.

As chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski began working on the energy reform bill nearly as soon as Congress convened in 2015 following the mid-term elections in which Republicans took control of the Senate.

The legislation package touched many aspects of domestic energy policy, from ensuring timely decisions on LNG export permits to federally recognizing hydropower as renewable energy and providing federal loan guarantees to states for deployment of energy efficiency and new energy systems, according to her office.

Far more than an energy bill, it also included a fish and wildlife conservation and lands access package long-sought by sportsmen’s groups; a land management package of more than 50 individual bills; and funding for fire mitigation and water management provisions for drought-riddled Western states, aspects championed by Murkowski’s partner on the legislation Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Energy committee Democrat.

In a last-ditch Dec. 8 speech on the Senate floor Murkowski emphasized the bill had gone through the proper committee process with input from both sides of the aisle — a rarity in Washington.

It passed the Senate 85-12 in April with priorities from 80 senators, Murkowski has noted, and the final conference report had provisions from 74 senators and 224 members of the House.

The House passed its Republican-heavy version of energy reform in late May and conference work began in July.

In using regular order, “Sen. Cantwell and I did what people said you couldn’t do,” Murkowski said in an interview.

She also accused House members on the conference committee of late changes to their demands in negotiations, saying negotiating hurdles had mostly been cleared in the days before everything fell apart.

They claimed a water settlement for the Yakima River watershed in central Washington, a key provision of Cantwell’s, would violate the House ban on earmarks, according to Murkowski.

However, Alaska’s senator contends the House turned around and approved similar California-specific provisions in the $12 billion water infrastructure bill President Barack Obama signed into law, also on Dec. 16.

A spokesman for Rep. Don Young, who served on the conference committee along with Murkowski, said the congressman would have rather seen something pass than nothing at all.

“Ultimately, the settlement point that (Young) came to was he supported some sort of energy package this year, while recognizing that moving forward we would have had to do a package that took a broader scope for energy policy in the country,” Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said.

Shuckerow also said he had not heard of Murkowski’s claim as to why the House adjourned when it did.

Murkowski stressed that getting more Republican priorities in an energy bill next Congress won’t necessarily be any easier, despite the forthcoming change in the White House because Republicans will hold 52 seats in the Senate, not close to the 60 votes needed to squelch a Democrat filibuster.

“Those who think it’s going to be easier next year don’t understand the realities of the Senate,” she said.

When it became clear the House was done, Murkowski took to salvaging what she could from her bill. She spent Dec. 9 pulling the dozens of land conveyance and management provisions from the bill in an effort to get passage through unanimous consent in the Senate.

The land provisions included approval of a right-of-way through Denali National Park for a potential state gasline to avoid a seismic fault on other routes and a long-awaited swap of Southeast timberland between the Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office and the Forest Service among other swaps for fire and water management in western states.

In the end, she was unsuccessful.

“Everything was sacrificed; so we have to start all over,” Murkowski conceded.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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