Can Congress Break the Energy-Legislation Curse?

It's been a struggle to pass any energy bill, but that's not stopping members from trying.

One undercard story in last week's flap over a Confederate-flag amendment on the House floor: It helped extend a multiyear losing streak for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency spending bill.

In fact, energy watchers wouldn't be out of bounds to think that passing any energy bill is just a cursed venture. Since a comprehensive bill last cleared Congress in 2007, energy policy and spending bills have gotten mired in issues both relevant (climate change, the Keystone XL pipeline) and unrelated (Obamacare, the Confederate flag), resulting in a dearth of energy policy from the Hill.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, thinks she's close to bucking the trend. She and ranking member Maria Cantwell are hammering out an agreement on a broad energy bill, with the hopes of releasing a draft this week and potentially voting on it in committee next week.

So is Murkowski reaching for her lucky rabbit's foot in the hopes of reversing the Hill's energy trend?

"No, no, I don't think it's cursed," Murkowski said with a chuckle. "I think for a period of time, our committees weren't working like we needed to. You're kind of taking on headwinds there. But I think we're doing well as a committee right now and you'll see a product ... where we're going to be able to demonstrate that we can put together a bipartisan energy bill and move it."

The last comprehensive piece of energy legislation to clear Congress came in 2007, with a bill that dealt with fuel economy, biofuel development, and energy efficiency. Since then, it's been a Sisyphean stretch of futility, setting aside a small energy-efficiency package that passed this spring.

Of course, any legislating these days is a struggle, but energy carries with it a heap of nonstarters on both sides. Republicans have used recent energy bills to try to force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline or open up new drilling areas. Democrats, in a bid to stick it to climate-skeptic Republicans, have lately tried to attach climate-science language.

"There are so many other issues going on that it's going to get crowded out. And even if you do bring it to the floor, energy will always provoke a lot of amendments," said former Sen. Byron Dorgan, who served on the Energy Committee until his retirement in 2011. "These days, you can't bring anything to the floor without something like Keystone coming up."

Even small-scale bills like the energy-efficiency package from Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Rob Portman get swept up into a broader national debate—and get stopped up in the process.

"Energy efficiency should be the low-hanging fruit where we can get agreement, but then Shaheen-Portman becomes this surrogate for the climate debate when everyone tries to offer amendments," said Chris Miller, who worked on energy policy for Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. "Maybe you have to go at this on a pure mechanical level, doing little things to encourage investments and shy away from the core principles."

The Confederate-flag fracas may be the most unexpected roadblock to hit an energy-policy bill. After Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman attached an amendment that would bar the display of the Confederate flag on graves on federal lands, Republican leaders the next day offered their own amendment to reverse the policy, ultimately pulling the bill amid fierce criticism from the Left.

But Democrats say the bill was doomed from the start, given the sheer number of policy riders that had been slapped onto the supposedly routine legislation, including ones to defund key elements of President Obama's climate plan. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last week that the bill was laden with handouts to "polluters "¦ and special interests" and that the "hatred" represented by the Confederate-flag amendment was just the final straw.

GOP Rep. Tom Cole acknowledged Thursday that the bill may have been fated for failure, saying that "it's a difficult bill always" that generates "ideological" differences.

It's unclear whether the appropriations bill has a path forward. Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, the Appropriations subcommittee chairman who wrote the bill, said there is no agreement to bring it back (in the Senate, Democrats have said they will try to stop spending bills that maintain sequester spending levels from coming to the floor).

Both chambers are trying to buck the unlucky energy trend with comprehensive energy bills. Murkowski said that she and Cantwell are down to a handful of minor outstanding issues on their bill, which is expected to touch on issues like energy efficiency, hydraulic fracturing, renewable energy, and grid security.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is working on a larger bill under the guise of what Republicans have called the "architecture of abundance," a package based around energy production that's sure to be more partisan and controversial but has the support of House Republicans.

But sponsors face an auspicious history. Take the Shaheen-Portman efficiency bill: First introduced in 2011, it was yanked from the floor in 2013 because GOP Sen. David Vitter wanted to vote on health care language, then again the following year because then-Majority Leader Reid did not want to give Republicans votes on amendments attacking environmental regulations. The two sponsors finally did move a version of the bill, but it was just a fraction of their original package.

Similarly, efforts to move a grand-scale climate-change bill in 2010 went up in flames after Sen. Lindsey Graham, now a GOP presidential candidate, abandoned bipartisan talks and Democrats scaled down the bill to a smattering of policies that ultimately did not move. That killed any remaining momentum from the summer 2009 House passage of cap-and-trade legislation.

While the House has moved plenty of Republican-backed energy bills to boost oil and gas production or curtail regulations, the only bill to get serious consideration in the Senate was one approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which was met with a swift veto from President Obama after weeks of amendment debate earlier this year.

So what's made energy such an impossible dream? Did former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman put a curse on the issue on his way out the door when he retired from Congress last year? Was the Energy and Natural Resources Committee room built on top of a gravesite?

Republican Rep. Joe Barton, who sponsored what became the 2005 Energy Policy Act in the House, was grim about the current environment. "Today when you talk energy, the environmental groups on the Left are so anti-energy that it does complicate it more than it used to. That's a true statement," he said.

It's not just a Left-Right split—energy is tinged with regional elements that go beyond party lines. Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, joked about that trouble when asked Monday about how "comprehensive" her committee's comprehensive energy bill would be.

"Well, that depends on what Heidi will give us," she said, pointing to fellow Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is more pro-fossil fuel than others in her party given the oil resources in her state.

Given the industry's ongoing "transformation," Cantwell said, she'd like to move an energy bill every year because there are many smaller measures that Congress can take to "help us make the transition" to the new energy system.

Energy efficiency has emerged as a possible middle ground, since it generally has bipartisan support and sidesteps a lot of the climate and production touchstones. But with no energy crisis—like skyrocketing oil costs or the volatile energy prices in the early 2000s—that needs immediate solving, even optimistic supporters say that they're not sure there's a future for a bill free of politics.

"There's no sense of a shared challenge," said Miller, now an adviser with the energy consulting firm AJW Inc. "You'd need [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] to put this on the agenda, and his rhetoric has not been soothing or indicative of an easy path to an energy bill because of what he's said about the EPA. At least not so far."