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US Energy Efficiency Bill Falls to Congressional Dysfunction

FILE - The Senate (R) and the Capitol Dome are seen in Washington.
FILE - The Senate (R) and the Capitol Dome are seen in Washington.
Michael Bowman
A bill with strong bipartisan support to make the United States more energy efficient has been blocked in the Senate. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act failed to get the three-fifths backing required to proceed to a final vote, becoming the latest victim of partisan warfare on Capitol Hill.

The idea is simple: the U.S. government, as well as homes and businesses across America, should use energy more frugally. Pro-environment Democrats like the bill’s potential to reduce greenhouse gases. Fiscally minded Republicans like the bill’s long term potential to reduce government expenditures on power and fuel. Members of both parties applaud the bill’s potential to boost American jobs. The bill has the backing of environmental and business groups alike.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, summed it up this way:

“This bill will make our country more energy independent, protect our environment, and save consumers on their energy bills," he said. "It would also create 200,000 jobs, American jobs.”

So why did the bill die in the Senate? Minority Republicans used a procedural maneuver, called a filibuster, to prevent a final vote. To drop the filibuster, Republicans like Senator John Cornyn demanded that Democrats allow votes on other energy matters.

“I have no doubt this underlying legislation would pass," he said. "It will pass if the majority leader allows us an opportunity to offer and debate our proposals for improving the underlying bill.”

Republicans want votes to approve a controversial oil pipeline from Canada, and to halt new restrictions on coal-powered electric plants. Environmentalists, a core Democratic voting bloc, oppose both Republican proposals. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin accused Republicans of abusing parliamentary procedures to advance an ecologically hostile agenda.

“The Republican Party of the United States of America is the only major political party in the world that is in denial of what is happening to our environment when it comes to climate change and global warming," he said. "And as a result, we are, I guess, stopped in our tracks [in the Senate].”

Durbin said the energy efficiency bill already incorporates many Republican proposals. That is not enough for Senator Cornyn, who blasted Democrats’ refusal to allow additional amendments prior to a final vote. Cornyn said he and other Republicans blocked the bill in protest.

“Well, we are not going to just shut up. We are not going to sit down and shut up,” he said.

Political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says partisan gridlock, now pervasive in the Senate, was a rarity until recent decades.

“There was no insistence on a 60-vote hurdle [to advance legislation in the 100-member body]," he said. "There was a real, genuine, open effort to legislate a solution [to the nation’s challenges]. But the conditions for that are simply not present [today]. It is very sad. The Senate is a greatly diminished body.”

Other recent legislation stymied in the Senate includes an increase in the national minimum wage, an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed, expanded background checks for firearms purchases, a restoration of federal funds for teachers and emergency responders, and a path to legal status for the children of undocumented immigrants.

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