If you tuned into C-SPAN earlier this month to watch lawmakers debate the much-anticipated Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency legislation (really, who wasn't glued to the coverage?), you may have thought you were watching a rerun of the health care debate.
You were. For the 42nd time. That's because Senator David Vitter (R-LA) brought the entire process to a standstill as he once again called for a vote to stop the national health care law.
“My amendment is not related to this bill," Vitter admitted after walking on the floor to rail on Obamacare. But that didn't stop the Senator from blocking consideration of any other amendments in the bipartisan efficiency bill until Senate leadership allows language eliminating insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
It was an immediate reversal of momentum for a bill with extraordinarily broad support from lawmakers and interest groups.
The Shaheen-Portman bill is a comprehensive plan that sets codes, targets and deployment programs for efficiency across government, the manufacturing sector and in commercial buildings. And because any new funding for programs would come from redirecting spending, not adding to the deficit, the bill has been hailed as the only major piece of energy legislation with any chance of passing in this session of Congress.
"No one was in opposition to the bill," said Rob Mosher, director of government relations at the Alliance to Save Energy. "It had broad political and stakeholder support, and there wasn’t any objection to the underlying bill."
Well, almost none. Two of the most aggressive political organizations on the right, the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, encouraged lawmakers to vote no. But they stood in direct opposition to nearly every other stakeholder in the process. Efficiency is, in theory, an issue almost everyone can get behind.
To someone outside Washington, forcing delay on an extremely popular bill in order to issue a tirade on a controversial topic might seem silly. But to those who've worked in Washington for a while, it was business as usual.
"The manner in which bills are debated and approved has always been challenging. This is certainly no different," said Mosher. "We are disappointed, but it's the way the Senate has always worked."
Although the rules of the Senate allow such tactics, this case does have its own special drama.
Days after Vitter stopped all action on the Shaheen-Portman bill, Senate Democrats drafted an amendment stripping lawmakers of their health care premium subsidies if there was "probable cause" that they had solicited a prostitute. This was a direct jab at Vitter, who was caught up in a prostitution scandal in 2007.
Now Senate lawmakers are in a standoff as Vitter refuses to budge and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid questions whether he'll allow a vote on the health care amendment. Meanwhile, other lawmakers await with their own added language that could further weigh down the bill.
So far, there have been more than 100 amendments drafted -- 38 directly tied to efficiency, twenty energy related, 25 for environmental or agricultural issues, and 25 that were completely unrelated. Aside from the Obamacare language, an amendment calling Keystone XL "in the national interest" was also a potential game-changer for the bill.
"There was a lack of agreement about the number of amendments from the start. If you keep that process open, members can continue to file amendments without any real parameters," said ASE's Mosher. "Now it's contingent on agreement about debate among leadership. It's a very subjective process."
And for now, that process has been delayed by a much more urgent showdown over the budget. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a plan that would fund the government past September 30 -- but only if funding for a national health care law is stripped. Since the plan is a nonstarter in the Democrat-controlled Senate, Congress only has six more days to agree on a plan before government agencies start shutting down. That has put an even deeper freeze on the Shaheen-Portman bill for now.
The debate over Obamacare helped derail the last major piece of climate and energy legislation in Congress -- and it looks like Obamacare could possibly derail the latest bill as well.
It's possible that Shaheen-Portman could come back up for consideration after the budget battle, but the chances of getting it passed have decreased substantially.
"We are just trying to support the efforts of the sponsors and the committees to advance the bill. It’s still in play, and we believe that it's not over," said Mosher.