Want bipartisanship? Look to energy, former Senate leaders say

Energy could provide fertile ground for bipartisan compromise in the next Congress, two former Senate majority leaders and the head of a think tank said at a Monitor breakfast Thursday. That could mean legislative action on anything from Keystone XL, to energy efficiency, to oil exports.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Former Senate Majority Leaders Trent Lott (R) and Tom Daschle (D) speak to reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor on Dec. 4. Both identified energy policy as a promising place for bipartisan compromise.

Two former Senate majority leaders say Republicans and Democrats should turn to energy policy if they’re hoping to break through Washington’s partisan impasse.

Little has made its way out of Congress over the last two years – even funding the government has proven divisive. Immigration and other issues have occupied much of Congress’s lame duck session, but energy could well rise to the surface as Republicans take the helm of Congress in January. With only a slim majority in the Senate and a Democratic White House, congressional Republicans will be on the lookout for bipartisan support – and energy presents a rare opportunity to work across the aisle, according to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R) and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D).

“I think there’s a good possibility in the energy area,” Mr. Lott said at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Thursday, as he listed fertile areas for across-the-aisle compromise. Mr. Daschle agreed, as did the third breakfast speaker, Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

The speakers pointed to the domestic oil and gas boom, which has transformed the US’s position in the global energy landscape. That has led both Democrats and Republicans to look for ways to leverage the new-found US oil and gas wealth.

Energy is among the best hopes for success in the coming Congress, according to Mr. Grumet, pointing to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill as an example of work that’s already underway.

“We don’t have a start from zero. There’s been a perception that Congress is incapable,” Grumet said, but “that’s not true at the rank and file level.”

The bill had broad bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this year, but partisan bickering over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline sunk its chance at a vote.

Shaheen-Portman could come back next year under incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate Republicans have also promised to pass a bill pushing Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to pass the Democratic-led Senate by one vote in November.

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Oil exports are another issue ripe for bipartisan deal making, Grumet says, particularly given the US’s booming oil and natural gas production. The US has banned most crude exports since the 1970s, but Republicans and some Democrats are now rethinking that policy. The oil industry is itching to ship its crude to foreign markets, where they hope to sell crude for higher prices. But some oppose oil exports on environmental grounds, or over concern that oil exports would put upward pressure on domestic energy prices.

“We live in an era of incredible energy abundance,” Grumet says, and there are moderate Democrats who could support lifting the ban on oil exports. “It’s a new issue. People aren’t dug in and entrenched.”

Republicans may get energy-state Democrats on board, but it’s unclear if Obama will acquiesce as Republicans push to expand an oil and gas boom that’s buoyed the US economy, created jobs, and lessened American dependence on foreign oil.

The Obama administration is trying to balance burgeoning fossil fuel production with its efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Tension between the emissions-intensive energy boom and Obama’s climate policy puts the White House in a difficult place.

“The big question for Obama is: How do we balance the carbon implications of this boom?” said Deborah Gordon, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, in an interview earlier this year.

Some have called for a comprehensive energy policy in the US to address just that. The Bipartisan Policy Center has proposed a centralized energy strategy council to oversee the sprawling network of government forces that dictate US energy policy.

“Nobody’s really in charge,” Senator Lott told reporters Thursday.

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