Lawmakers are frustrated about being kept in the dark as Democratic leaders strategize how to jimmy an energy deal struck with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) behind closed doors through Congress — while also averting a government shutdown.
Democratic leadership is aiming to use a must-pass government-funding bill to advance an energy permitting proposal by Manchin by the end of the month. But with roughly two weeks standing between Congress and the critical funding deadline, tensions are simmering over the closely-kept negotiations.
“We don’t know what it is. They haven’t released the text, they don’t give us the detailed explanation,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told The Hill this week. “So, I don’t know how you could ask people to vote for something they don’t know what it is.”
“There’s a reason they’re keeping it secret: it’s either still being negotiated or it’s so weak it has no meaning or it’s too strong for other people,” she added.
Only a broad outline of Manchin’s plan has been released.
It includes setting maximum timelines for the environmental review process for energy projects, which advocates say could undercut the analysis required for a project’s approval and weaken community involvement. Other components would make it harder for states to block projects that run through their waters and require the president to pick a “balanced” list of energy projects that should be prioritized.
The outline also says that a natural gas pipeline that runs through West Virginia, known as the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would be completed.
But in the absence of official text, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are complaining that they don’t know what they’re debating.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) who is leading the left-wing opposition to Manchin’s reforms, said he’d be open to negotiating a package if it will provide protections for communities that face high pollution burdens.
Still, he expressed frustration that the details of Manchin’s proposal haven’t been spelled out.
“We’re negotiating in the dark and all the cards are held by the Senate and we’re just supposed to react,” Grijalva told The Hill.
He said he’s seeking a meeting with leadership to negotiate and also plans to reach out to Manchin.
Pressed on Thursday whether the text would be released before legislation is unveiled for the funding bill, Manchin told The Hill he believes it will be “released in the CR,” referring to the continuing resolution, which is expected to push the government funding deadline to December as the midterm cycle picks up.
A continuing resolution is a short-term spending bill that keeps spending at present levels.
As for when and how the funding bill will be brought up for consideration, much appears to be up in the air, as top leaders indicate those details are still being hashed out.
Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, speculated that the CR might not drop until “probably closer to the end of the month” — which he noted would up the pressure on both sides to pass a CR before funding lapses.
However, he raised doubts about whether Manchin’s permitting measure will make it into the larger funding package.
“Republicans and a lot of Democrats [are] against it. So, I don’t know where it goes yet,” he said.
He pointed to a separate permitting proposal released by Capito and other Republicans this past week as an alternative.
It’s not totally clear how different the Capito and Manchin plans will be, though Manchin has suggested his plan will be similar to the plan from his fellow West Virginia senator.
“She dropped the marker on the same lines of what we’ve done,” Manchin said. He also expressed hopes that Republicans lining up behind her proposal, which has backing from over 40 GOP members, will translate to support for the funding bill if it includes permitting reform. Such support could also translate to the House, where there is significant Democratic opposition to the plan.
“It means that basically Democrats and Republicans are in the same mindset of going permitting and why it’s so important, and hopefully she’s able to bring at least 20 of them,” Manchin said.
Like the Manchin outline, the Capito legislation would limit environmental review timelines, restrict states’ authorities to block projects and require the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. It goes further, preventing the federal government from restricting an oil and gas extraction process known as fracking that has been linked to water contamination. It also would allow states to take over authority from the federal government of energy production on public lands.
Some in the GOP view the Capito legislation as a starting point for negotiations, while others appear less willing to meet Manchin in the middle. But, as Manchin’s efforts are still seen as their best shot to get any kind of reform done, they may eventually coalesce around his proposal.
Meanwhile, nearly 80 House Democrats are calling on party leadership to separate Manchin’s deal from the funding bill, though some are wary of threatening to vote against the deal if it means a government shutdown.
“If it’s attached then that would theoretically be a shutdown vote,” Grijalva told The Hill, but he cast doubt on the chances all Democrats opposing the proposal would vote down a stopgap bill containing the measure.
Grijalva acknowledged that not every member who opposes the permitting reform changes would be willing to go to a shutdown — and didn’t say whether he himself would vote to shut down the government — but said that right now, his coalition has power.
He said that in “any close vote, and if the Republicans don’t support any part of it, which has been the history, then then I think our vote becomes that much more significant.”
“But I’m not promoting that … The ask right now is to divide it,” he added.
That doesn’t mean some members aren’t already doing the math, however.
“As small as our margin is, we only need what? Three, four or five?” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), one of the dozens of Democrats supporting Grijalva’s effort, told The Hill on the matter Thursday. “So, we’ll see if we have that.”
Alex Bolton contributed.