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Energy Efficiency Bill Falls to Partisan Maneuvering

The Senate officially presided over the demise of bipartisan energy efficiency legislation Monday – and the chance to put the Keystone XL pipeline up for a vote ahead of the midterm elections.

The Senate voted 55 to 36 on a procedural motion needed to move ahead on the innocuous and popular efficiency bill that had been caught in the headwinds of debates over the Keystone pipeline and President Obama’s plans to issue new climate change regulations without Congressional action.

The measure, sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R, OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D, NH), was a rarity in today’s political environment. Until last week, it had widespread support from members of both parties in both chambers of Congress. A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Representatives David B. McKinley (R, WV) and Peter Welch (D-VT) has also drawn strong bipartisan backing.

Congressional staff members have been working behind the scenes for nearly a year to draft a consensus version of the bill that party leaders in both chambers could endorse.  That was accomplished, but calls for amendments led to the bill’s demise.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell sought unsuccessfully to hold votes on a slew of amendments, and then trimmed his request to just five Republican proposals, including a measure to pre-empt EPA greenhouse gas restrictions for power plants that is opposed by coal supporters in his state. Majority Leader Harry Reid objected to both attempts, leading to a standoff from which neither side backed down.

Reid in the end switched his vote to ‘no’ to allow the energy efficiency measure to be brought up again. But that seems unlikely, since he and McConnell are once again blaming each other for allowing another bipartisan bill fall by the wayside.

“I think I had the votes if we had four to five amendments. I know I had the votes,” Portman said.  “But the reason why the bill went down was because of the intransigence of the [Democratic] leader in terms of amendments. If they had allowed five germane amendments, it would have passed… Today’s failure to move forward on a bipartisan energy-efficiency bill is yet another disappointing example of Washington’s dysfunction.”

Reid blamed the failure on influence by Scott Brown, who is considering a run for the US Senate in New Hampshire and “the Koch Brothers,” which has become something of a litany from the leader.

It has been seven years since Congress has passed a major energy bill, and a variety of energy issues have become top concerns since then. There is the push to combat global warming, which scientists say is made worse by the burning of coal, oil and gas, and the debate over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which environmentalists fear will contaminate water supplies but which also has led to a boom in oil and gas. The crisis in Ukraine, which depends on Russia for its energy supplies, has also raised questions about whether the United States should export its gas and crude oil to achieve its foreign policy goals.

The modest energy-efficiency bill would not have addressed any of those issues. It was a bundle of small-bore provisions aimed at cutting homeowners’ energy use, utility bills and carbon footprints by, among other measures, making it easier for consumers to buy “smart metered” water heaters and making it cheaper for manufacturers to build energy-efficient cooling and heating systems.

The vote wasn’t directly linked to the Keystone pipeline. All the Democrats present for the vote, including several who favor approving the pipeline, supported Reid’s procedural move to block Republican amendments on Keystone, EPA greenhouse gas restrictions, a carbon tax and expediting liquefied natural gas exports.