The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House GOP passes energy package with eye on gas prices, 2024

Democrats argue that the legislation, which a lawmaker said would be ‘dead on arrival’ in the Senate, does not address critical climate issues

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is seen in the House chamber Thursday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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House Republicans passed legislation Thursday that would increase oil drilling and mining on public lands and waters, defying President Biden’s climate agenda and fulfilling a campaign promise to focus on lowering gasoline prices ahead of the 2024 election.

All but one Republican voted in support of the bill, which passed 225-204, while four vulnerable Democrats crossed the aisle to help ensure its passage. Republicans can afford to lose only four votes to pass bills with their narrow majority.

The sprawling 175-page package, known as the Lower Energy Costs Act, would slash some environmental regulations and reinstate suspended oil and gas leases. It also would repeal parts of the Democrats’ landmark climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act.

While the House approved the measure, largely along party lines, it is not expected to become law. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said the package will be “dead on arrival” in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Biden has said he will veto the measure if it reaches his desk.

But Republicans think the bill will send a potent message to voters that they kept a midterm election promise to lower gas prices, which spiked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year before drifting downward in recent months. They argue that Biden’s climate policies, including his decision to revoke a key permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, are responsible for widespread pain at the gasoline pump.

“There’s probably no single element that shows you how bad President Biden’s agenda has been for families — especially lower-income families — than his anti-American energy policy,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said at an event Tuesday hosted by the America First Policy Institute, a think tank aligned with former president Donald Trump.

Democrats counter that the bill, which they have derisively called the “Polluters Over People Act,” ignores the findings of top climate scientists. In a dire report last week, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world must rapidly phase out its use of fossil fuels to avert the most catastrophic effects of global warming, including several feet of sea level rise and the migration of millions of people from places where they can no longer survive.

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“We have a lot to do, and very little time to do it, before the ticking climate bomb we’re living in goes off,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said on the House floor Tuesday. “H.R. 1 … will actively and aggressively take us backwards.”

It also is unclear whether the GOP energy package actually would reduce energy prices, said Kevin Book, the managing director of the independent research firm ClearView Energy Partners.

On one hand, it would reinstate suspended oil and gas leases, which would probably increase supply and lower pump prices, Book said. On the other hand, it would repeal climate programs in the Inflation Reduction Act aimed at bringing down the cost of exploiting sources of renewable energy.

“Will it lower energy costs writ large, on an average energy spending basis for the country?” Book said. “I can’t say for sure.”

As of Wednesday, the national average price of a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.46, according to AAA. That’s down about 31 percent from an all-time high of $5.02 in June but up about 45 percent from an average of $2.39 in January 2021, when Biden took office.

The centerpiece of the energy package is legislation from Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), that seeks to accelerate the permitting process for energy projects. Graves and other Republican lawmakers argue that it takes too long for projects to secure the necessary permits, delaying critical infrastructure from becoming operational. According to an analysis by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the average time for permitting major projects is 4.5 years.

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While most of the energy package probably will die in the Senate, House Republicans are hopeful that Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) will try to broker a bipartisan deal on permitting by building on Graves’s proposal. If the Senate is able to strike a bipartisan permitting deal by gaining the support of all Democrats and nine Republicans, House Republicans are eager to reshape the bill in a conference committee to ensure that some of their proposals become law, according to several GOP leadership aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about internal plans.

Yet, that pathway seems perilous. Manchin tried unsuccessfully last year to attach a permitting bill to a government funding package and the annual defense policy measure.

Sam Runyon, a spokeswoman for Manchin, said in an email that the senator “is taking a close look” at the House GOP energy package and “is hopeful there might be a pathway to permitting legislation that could gain bipartisan support.”

Democrats have said they are interested in overhauling the permitting process but only if doing so helps renewable energy projects, such as the development of wind and solar farms. Staunch conservatives have pushed for permitting proposals to apply only to fossil-fuel projects.

To push through the permitting portion of the energy package, McCarthy on Tuesday proposed attaching the permitting language to legislation that would raise the debt ceiling. In addition to that provision, Republicans are asking to pair an increase of the debt ceiling with a slew of deep spending cuts. Biden and congressional Democrats, however, want to pass a “clean” debt ceiling bill — one dealing only with raising the debt ceiling.

House Republicans have made the energy package one of their top legislative priorities, in part because energy policy is one of the few issues that unite the fractious GOP conference. After Republicans won a narrow House majority in the midterms, Scalise pledged to bring up bills on energy, border security and abortion within the first two weeks of Congress. But some of those other proposals have stalled indefinitely because the narrow margin has threatened their passage.

While the energy package has faced less drama than other policies, it did not lack disagreement. More than 150 Republicans introduced amendments to update the bill with their provisions of choice as part of an “open amendment” process leaders promised in exchange for some Republicans’ support of McCarthy for speaker.

To limit debate, leadership approved only 37 amendments for a vote, irritating key groups and exposing intraparty tensions. One of the amendments that was not approved, a proposal from Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.), would have codified a ban on oil drilling off the coast of Florida until 2032.

Republicans from Florida have long opposed drilling off their state, arguing that it could jeopardize military activities in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and harm the state’s tourism industry, which was devastated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. But Gimenez said he planned to vote for the overall package after receiving assurances from leadership that the issue would be addressed, and other Republicans from Florida were happy to see amendments addressing offshore wind energy approved for a vote.

Moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) introduced several amendments aimed at making the energy package more climate-friendly, but none were adopted for debate. He became the only Republican to vote against the legislation Thursday.

On Thursday, four Democrats ended up crossing the aisle and voting with Republicans. Those Democrats were Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (Tex.), Henry Cuellar (Tex.), Jared Golden (Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.).

“In order to fully realize the benefits of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, remain competitive on the world stage, and ensure the American people have access to safer roads and bridges and reliable and affordable energy, we must improve federal environmental review and permitting processes,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “While this package is far from perfect, it is a step forward.”