With Keystone Theater Done, Senate Primed for Meaty Energy Debate

Can Congress actually pass something President Obama will sign?

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 21: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) (L) talks with Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) with Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) during a 'Wake Up Congress for Climate Action Rally' in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Members of Congress from The Senate Climate Action Task Force, the Bicameral Climate Change Task Force, the House Safe Climate Caucus and House Sustainable Energy and the Environment Coalition rallied with hundreds of people to sound the alarm about climate change.   (National Journal)

After a month that saw more than 40 roll-call votes on energy issues, the Senate is geared up to do it all again -- just a little slower.

The final vote on the Keystone XL oil pipeline bill capped a long-awaited open debate on energy, with votes on issues ranging from the reality of climate change to renewable-energy tax incentives. It was, both sides said, a chance to knock off some rust and get into topics that hadn't seen votes on the Senate floor in years.

But ultimately, most issues were dispatched after two minutes of floor debate and roll-call votes on a pipeline bill fraught with controversy and politics and doomed with a veto threat from the start. Not exactly the kind of meaty debate most members had been clamoring for.

"The media circus surrounding the Super Bowl has nothing on this overinflated Senate debate on Canadian export pipeline legislation that will never be signed into law," said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., in a statement after the vote. "Hopefully, now that this Keystone Kabuki theater is over, we can move on to passing legislation that will help middle-class American families and make America more energy secure."

Now, lawmakers say they're at least open to reviving issues such as offshore drilling and renewable-energy credits in the traditional deliberative Senate style.

Take, for example, the contrast in the treatment of the hot-button issue of exports of liquefied natural gas. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas introduced an amendment to expedite exports that attracted 53 yes votes but needed 60 to move forward. A day later, on Thursday, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee took up a separate bipartisan bill on LNG exports in a hearing that included administration and industry witnesses, with a promise to move the bill through the committee with administration input.

It's that kind of committee-driven process that Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski has promised for some bigger energy issues. The Alaska Republican has said she'll work on a comprehensive energy bill later this spring, with titles on infrastructure, supply, efficiency, and accountability.

She said that the weeks just spent on energy may grease the gears for members to start work on such a bill.

"All the sudden, you're looking around the floor and realizing there might be someone you can work with on pipeline safety, or to build a coalition with on the land and water conservation fund," Murkowski said. "As important as moving this [Keystone] measure is "¦ it has been good for the process and good for the spirit of cooperation as we move forward."

The committee's ranking member, Maria Cantwell of Washington, likewise said she was anticipating the energy bill debate, especially after the relatively smooth Keystone debate.

"This process we just went through bodes well for us trying to say to both sides of our aisles that there are things we can put on the table and discuss and a process we can go through and that process can work," Cantwell said.

Of the 41 votes on amendments on the bill, only four were approved and most of those were sense of the Senate resolutions. Arguably, the most policy-packed one was an energy-efficiency package from Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that represented a smaller version of a bill they've worked on for three years.

Portman said they are already looking past Keystone to move the larger bill back through the Energy Committee and get it to the floor on its own. That bill -- which was derailed last spring amid GOP demands for amendment votes on the Keystone pipeline and other issues -- had been seen ahead of this term as an opportunity for an easy, bipartisan debate.

An amendment from Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy, both Louisiana Republicans, that would increase revenue sharing for oil-producing states and open up more offshore drilling was withdrawn, with the promise to move it through the Energy Committee.

Democrats, who had lined up a number of amendments on the reality of climate change in a bid to nail Republicans on the issue, also saw openings on that front, especially after five Republicans crossed the aisle to say that climate change was significantly caused by man. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who sponsored one climate amendment, said he was anticipating more hearings and long-term debate on the issue, although he said it was a "pretty sad state of affairs" that Republicans as a whole doubted the scientific consensus. "But let them give their point of view," he said.

Until the Keystone bill returns with President Obama's veto stamp, energy won't be back as a floor priority, with the Homeland Security Department funding bill moving into the spotlight this week. But Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe said there was a clear appetite to make energy a priority going forward.

"We're going to talk on it, vote and act on it rather than sit around and act like it doesn't exist," Inhofe said. "It's out in the open, it's a very positive thing."

And as for the politically charged climate-change votes that began under Keystone?

"Sure, you'll have those climate votes," Inhofe said. "But, really, isn't it nice that we're working again?"