House Democrats seek diplomatic solution to permitting impasse

Proposal has a lot of critics, but they're wary of triggering a partial shutdown

House Natural Resources Chair Raúl  M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., wants to meet with party leaders to hash out a compromise. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., wants to meet with party leaders to hash out a compromise. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 14, 2022 at 7:00pm

House Democrats opposed to attaching an energy infrastructure permitting measure to the continuing resolution aren't yet threatening to vote against the must-pass government funding bill. Most hope it won't come to that.

House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva on Wednesday sent meeting requests to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to discuss the push to separate the two issues. After gathering signatures from 87 House Democrats, including at least eight fellow committee chairs and eight appropriators who don’t want the permitting bill in the CR, Grijalva is ready to present their case.

“I had not done that because I wasn't comfortable acting like a single broker on this,” the Arizona Democrat said in an interview. “It's bigger than myself. There's other members involved and hundreds of organizations across the country.”

Although leaders and appropriators are still negotiating the details of the stopgap bill, Grijalva’s appeal may be coming too late.

Schumer said Tuesday he plans to include the permitting measure authored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., in the CR and that “it will pass.” The duo agreed to advance the permitting bill by Sept. 30 as part of their negotiations over Democrats’ climate, health and tax law.

Manchin’s bill, which has not been publicly released, is designed to speed up approval and construction of pipelines and other energy infrastructure for both fossil fuels and renewables.

Republicans have shown little interest in the measure and the political deal behind it. They have instead rallied behind alternative permitting legislation from West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the Environment and Public Works ranking member, that would go further in advancing fossil fuel production.

“The bigger problem is whether there's 60 votes over there,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who signed Grijalva’s letter, said. “What the hell is this thing even? We haven't seen text. . . . I think the plays by the Republicans and maybe some of the difficulties on their side are why we haven't seen text.”

The permitting measure is one of the biggest question marks around passing the stopgap. But appropriators are still negotiating whether to include other add-ons — like supplemental funding for Ukraine, disasters, COVID-19 and monkeypox — without jeopardizing bipartisan support needed to clear the Senate.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said negotiations are continuing on those matters, as well which chamber will originate the CR, which she said will likely not be ready for a vote this week.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said text of the bill will likely not be available until the deadline nears. “Probably closer to the end of the month, always,” he said. “Because the pressure comes in, on both sides.”

Democrats’ concerns

Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he will oppose the stopgap bill if it includes the permitting measure. He and House Democrats opposed to the Manchin-Schumer arrangement worry accelerating permitting will skip key environmental and community reviews, and that fossil fuel projects that get approved will roll back some of the emissions reduction progress they’re making in the broader climate law.

Grijalva said the Democrats and outside groups want to preserve environmental justice and prevent “destruction” of the National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures environmental impacts are considered in all major federal infrastructure projects. They’re frustrated that Schumer cut a deal with Manchin on a major measure without broader input from Democratic lawmakers and stakeholders and is trying to jam it through on a must-pass bill.

“The way to remedy a trauma or a drama is to separate it,” Grijalva said. “Now, I don't know what kind of consternation that might give to the Senate. But that wasn't our deal down here and you can hear time and time again — even for members that might support it — that wasn't our deal.”

Grijalva said Manchin has called him and he plans to set up a meeting with him, too. He’s even open to negotiating on the permitting overhaul outside of the CR, but he needs to see the details of Manchin’s proposal first.

Some outside groups involved have even given Grijalva the green light to negotiate a watered-down version of the permitting overhaul as long as it adheres to their pillars on upholding key elements of NEPA, and includes priorities such as community redress for unforeseen environmental impacts.

“If we just want to pass a clean CR 'til December and wait 'til December to negotiate or just try to find [common] ground on this permitting reform,” Grijalva said, he would be open to that. “Permitting reform to me also means truly staffing the agencies responsible, fully staffing NEPA and not undermining it and doing something about overburdened communities that would become more burdened because of this.”

Strength in numbers

Grijalva’s leverage comes from the 87 Democrats — nearly 40 percent of the caucus — pushing to keep the permitting bill out of the stopgap, and the fact that few Republicans are expected to support the CR, with or without the permitting bill.

“That doesn't mean all 80-plus are going to torpedo a CR,” Grijalva admits, noting it would only take about a dozen Democrats to sink a combined measure. But he is not even prepared to make that threat himself as he pursues more diplomatic channels.

Many other Democrats who signed the letter aren’t ready to go that far either.

“I’m taking this a step at a time. Let’s see what the Senate sends,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., an appropriator, said.

Huffman also said “it’s way too early” to make a pronouncement about voting against the CR. “There are a lot of moving parts here. So let’s see where it goes,” he said.

Some Democrats who signed the letter even admitted they would be unlikely to vote against the CR if the permitting measure ends up in it.

“I’ve got to think, if you vote against the CR, you close down the government,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., who chairs the Oversight Committee. “I don’t want to close down the government.”

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said he is currently prepared to vote against the CR if it includes Manchin’s permitting bill. But he said his final vote would ultimately depend what else is included, since there could be other measures that tilt him toward “yes.”

“The whole idea that this was an agreement that was reached, well, you didn’t reach it with us,” he said. “And we’re waiting to see what’s in the final package. If we can actually have more that benefits the environment, that furthers our path on more of a clean technology and a transition to a greener and cleaner economy, that’s what I’m going to go for.”