Five options for getting crude export bill to president’s desk

WASHINGTON — Legislation to authorize widespread crude exports is expected to easily pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, but the measure faces steep obstacles in the narrowly divided Senate.

There, backers generally must amass 60 votes of support — a filibuster-proof majority — and getting to that number means luring at least six Democrats to the bill and holding on to all of the chamber’s 54 Republicans.

It’s such a tough challenge that many energy analysts give low odds to any crude exports bill clearing Congress this year or next, when presidential politics could further inflame the debate. For instance, ClearView Energy’s Kevin Book puts the chances at 15 percent.

Still, oil producers and their allies on Capitol Hill are mulling an array of strategies for overcoming the obstacles and pushing crude exports legislation out of the Senate and onto the president’s desk. None are easy, some carry big political risks, and nothing is guaranteed to work.

Here are some of those possible pathways:

Tether it to highway spending

The Highway Trust Fund — which pays for road and bridge construction around the nation — could run out of gas as soon as Oct. 29. Keeping that fund solvent in the short term — or with a longer, six-year extension — is viewed as a top priority by lawmakers who want to see the federal government reimburse local governments for transportation projects.

Some oil export advocates say that urgency makes the highway bill an ideal vehicle for liberalizing crude trade.

The Senate already passed a six-year extension in August. If the House embeds an oil exports provision into its own version of the highway bill, the clash between the House- and Senate measures could be negotiated by a conference committee, which would be dominated by Republicans from both chambers.

If that conference committee agreed to keep the pro-exports provision, it would be in a final conference report that must be adopted by both the House and Senate for the highway legislation to clear Congress. And that conference report is not open to further amendment.

In this scenario, the senators would not vote specifically on lifting the oil export ban — just agreeing to a compromise transportation bill that includes the export provision.

Oil export advocates say that could provide valuable cover to some Senate Democrats who view the highway bill as a must-pass measure — even if it contains an export provision they don’t enthusiastically support.

Make it a medical miracle

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., worked for months to stitch together a bipartisan bill that would speed research and development of new medical treatments, ultimately getting it passed the House with overwhelming support in July.

The Senate is set to work on its own version of the bill, and the critical committee chairman predicts that legislation will see floor action next year.

Oil exports might not be considered relevant — or germane — to the medical innovation bill, but the House-passed version included a planned sale of some emergency oil stockpiled in the United States to raise revenue for the program. The Senate could instead turn to oil exports as a “revenue raiser” to offset the cost of a medical innovation fund, under the premise that liberalizing crude trade spurs more domestic production, with a resulting boost in government revenue from the activity.

Treat it like it’s toxic 

Environmental and consumer groups are prodding lawmakers to revamp a nearly four-decade-old toxic chemicals law — and the issue has traction on Capitol Hill.

The House has already overwhelmingly passed a bill to require the Environmental Protection Agency conduct risk assessments on an array of chemicals. And a Senate committee has advanced its own version, teeing up possible action on the bill this fall.
There are debates about the shape of chemical regulation and stark differences between the House and Senate approach. But the issue has legs and the measures have bipartisan backing — making them a potential vehicle for an oil exports provision.

Dole out money at the same time

Congress is expected to eventually pass a massive appropriations bill funding the federal government, though likely long after fiscal year 2016 starts on Oct. 1.

Such omnibus spending bills are the quintessential “must-pass” legislation in Washington, D.C., because absent their passage — or a short-term extension of federal spending — the government shuts down.

For oil export enthusiasts, any essential bill provides an attractive target. But a major question with an omnibus spending bill or any other must-pass measure is how many other unrelated riders try to hitch a ride. Beyond exports, there are other issues that could be added to a spending bill that are highly controversial, potentially bogging down the whole thing.

Use it to fuel alternative energy

Some Democrats have suggested they won’t back a straight-up oil exports bill but could be persuaded to vote for liberalized crude trade if it came with support for alternative energy. Whether those comments are a negotiating position or providing cover for a future “no” is unclear, but it’s provided an opening to oil producers and their allies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the lead Democrat on the Senate’s main oil exports bill, said Tuesday she would be open to folding in renewable energy tax credits if it helped boost support for the measure.

The chief candidate: A production tax credit that helps finance wind power and lapsed at the beginning of the year. Wind power supporters in Congress have considered a permanent extension or a temporary renewal, allowing it to be phased out over five years or so.

But any extension of the production tax credit is anathema to many fiscal conservatives in Congress who say wind power should no longer be propped up by a “government subsidy.”

For oil export supporters, it’s a matter of calculus: Does adding a PTC extension attract more Democratic votes than it loses among Republicans? And, would House Republican leaders ever sign off on that deal? Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, the sponsor of the leading House exports bill, insists that you should not “have to give away the store” to get the legislation through the Senate.