Senate stumbles toward government shutdown with impasse over energy policy

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(WASHINGTON) — Congress has just three legislative days remaining to avert a fast-approaching government shutdown at the end of the week, and much of its ability to keep the government running will depend upon whether lawmakers can navigate an impasse over energy policy.

In the few days that remain, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will try to lead the Senate in passage of a short-term funding bill that is expected to include Sen. Joe Manchin’s energy permitting reform legislation. Schumer struck a deal with Manchin to include energy permitting reform, a top priority for the West Virginia moderate Democrat, on a must-pass piece of legislation before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 in order to secure Manchin’s crucial support for Democrats’ keystone Inflation Reduction Act.

But with the passage of the health care and environmental bill now in the rearview mirror, Schumer’s behind-the-scenes deal making has come home to roost. The fiscal year ends on Friday, leaving the Democratic caucus in both chambers deeply divided with just days to a shutdown.

On Tuesday, the Senate will take a key test vote to determine the fate of Manchin’s legislation as it considers a bill to fund the government through mid-December.

Schumer, with the backing of the White House, is sticking to his promise to include the Manchin legislation, introduced Wednesday, in the short-term funding bill. The Manchin bill would accelerate energy projects mandating that federal environmental reviews essentially be completed in two and a half years, a substantial increase from today’s process.

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In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Sunday, Manchin argued that his proposed legislation would bring the country in line with allied countries like Canada and Australia by reducing timelines on energy products from the current five to 10 years.

He called his bill, which speeds up permitting process for both renewable projects like wind and solar as well as non-renewable energies like oil and gas, “the kind of balanced and all-of-the-above energy approach America needs if we are to defend this nation’s energy security from those who seem hell-bent on weakening it.”

But it’s proven a tough pill to swallow for some progressives, many of whom knew of the outlines of the Schumer-Manchin deal before the IRA vote but not the specifics, which were just unveiled at the end of last week. They’re pushing back against what they see as a deal that goes counter to the very progress the IRA is expected to make against climate change.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is organizing a letter to Schumer — signed by a number of liberal senators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders — asking that a vote on legislation speeding up permits occur separately from one on funding the government, according to an aide to the Oregon Democrat.

But the Senate group, like the more than 80 House progressives who oppose the deal in the House, stopped short of threatening to vote against the government funding bill if permitting reform is attached.

Sanders, however, has said unequivocally he intends to vote against funding the government if it includes Manchin’s bill.

In a scathing dear colleague letter on Friday, Sanders urged his fellow lawmakers to block the “disastrous side deal recently introduced by Senator Manchin to make it easier for the fossil fuel industry to destroy the planet and pollute the environment.”

“Next week, Congress has a fundamental choice to make. We can listen to the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers who are spending huge amounts of money on lobbying and campaign contributions to pass this side deal. Or we can listen to the scientists and the environmental community who are telling us loudly and clearly to reject it,” Sanders wrote.

It is that Sanders’ opposition in the narrowly divided Senate that has put Schumer in something of a bind. He needs GOP votes on government funding, but Republicans — feeling they have leverage — are anxious to pay Manchin back for what they see as his betrayal when he pivoted from opposing the Democrats’ sweeping climate and health bill to casting the deciding “yes” vote.

Manchin, in his Sunday op-ed, accused GOP leadership of playing politics in standing in the way of his legislation while promoting a competing, though slightly more expensive, bill by his home state GOP colleague, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. The bills are remarkably similar, especially in that both guarantee the approval of a top project for West Virginia — the as-yet-unbuilt Mountain Valley Pipeline which is intended to carry natural gas some 300 miles from northern West Virginia into southern Virginia. The project is tied up in litigation.

It’s in part because of the greenlighted Mountain Valley Pipeline project that Capito said she intends to support Manchin’s legislation when it comes to the floor. She’ll back the short term funding bill with Manchin’s legislation attached during Tuesday’s test vote.

But it’s not clear if other Republicans will be ready to give Manchin another win.

According to an aide, Manchin spent the weekend working the phones and shored up the support of several other Republicans. He’s still confident there’s a path to the 60 votes necessary to clear Tuesday’s procedural vote on the short term funding bill that will include his legislation.

Despite Manchin’s optimism, that vote faces major headwinds. That’s why there’s a backup plan to keep the government funded.

If the bill fails to get the necessary 60 votes to proceed, Schumer is largely expected to strip Manchin’s permitting reform legislation and barrel forward. That’s essential not only to keep the lights on in Washington but also to secure funds for a few other bipartisan priorities.

There is support from both parties for additional funding to assist Ukraine in the ongoing war against Russia. The short term funding bill is expected to include at least $12 billion in economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine.

The bill is also expected to include disaster aid for Jackson, Mississippi’s ongoing water crisis. A flood in Jackson last month brought to a head years of water system failures in the area, leaving residents without access to clean drinking water.

A potential funding crisis at the Food and Drug Administration will also be averted. After months of behind-the-scenes squabbling, negotiators reached an agreement late last week to include language reauthorizing FDA user fees in this short term package. Authorization for those fees on companies which seek authorization from the FDA for new drugs must be renewed every five years. Current authorization expires Friday.

The FDA uses the user fees to fund an expedited approval process for new and innovative drugs and medical technologies. By including this language in the short term bill, the FDA won’t be sending pink slips to workers who helped authorize COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

But other COVID-19 priorities are expected to fall by the wayside, yet again.

The administration wanted Congress to approve an additional $22 billion in funds to combat COVID-19 to fund vaccine research and additional testing. Republicans have blocked multiple efforts to secure these funds, arguing that there is still remaining funding that’s yet to be utilized, and questioning the necessity of additional spending.

The administration’s efforts to secure COVID money were not helped, however, by Biden’s comments on “60 Minutes” earlier this month that “the pandemic is over.”

Republican Whip John Thune told reporters last week that Biden’s comments make it “​​eminently harder for sure” to persuade the GOP to support additional funds.

The fate of a separate $4 billion request from the White House to combat monkeypox remains uncertain.

The Senate is expected to act sometime this week to avert a shutdown, at which point the House will have to swiftly take up and pass the legislation. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the chamber may work through the weekend to secure funding if necessary.

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