Sen. Manchin ends push for faster energy project permit process, easing path for spending bill
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Joe Manchin on Tuesday abandoned his push to speed up the permitting process for energy projects as part of a government funding package, bowing to bipartisan opposition that had complicated efforts to pass a spending bill before the fiscal year ends at midnight Friday.
Removing the permitting legislation is likely to make it much easier to pass a spending bill that will keep the government running through mid-December and provide more aid to Ukraine.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the removal of the energy provisions shortly before the Senate took its first test vote on the funding Tuesday evening. It was clear that, with Manchin’s plan included, Democrats were falling far short of the 60 votes needed to proceed.
While lawmakers are again waiting to the final moments of the fiscal year to keep the government running, they are confident they will do so. Neither party is interested in a shutdown heading into the critical midterm elections Nov. 8 that will determine which party is in charge of the House and Senate.
The spending measure Democrats unveiled this week provides about $12.3 billion in assistance related to Ukraine, including training, equipment, weapons and direct financial support for the Ukraine government. The assistance would be on top of some $53 billion Congress has already approved through two previous bills.
The measure excludes the White House call for spending $22 billion to respond to COVID-19, and $3.9 billion to fight against an outbreak of the monkeypox virus. Republican lawmakers were overwhelmingly opposed to the health funding. At least 10 Republican senators would have to support the measure to overcome procedural hurdles and advance in that chamber.
The most contentious piece of the legislation was Manchin’s plan to streamline the permitting process for energy projects and make it easier for a pipeline project in his home state and Virginia to proceed.
Manchin in a statement confirmed he had asked Schumer to remove the permitting language from the bill. He said he was holding to his belief that “we should never come to the brink of a government shutdown over politics.”
“It is unfortunate that members of the United States Senate are allowing politics to put the energy security of our nation at risk,” Manchin said.
Both chambers of Congress must approve legislation by Friday, which is the end of the fiscal year, to prevent a partial government shutdown. It represents the last bit of unfinished business for lawmakers before the midterm elections in November. Both sides are eager to wrap up and spend time on the campaign trail, lowering the risk of a federal stoppage.
Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, had secured a commitment from President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders to have a vote on the permitting package in return for his support of a landmark law to curb climate change.
While Republicans have voiced support for streamlining the permitting process for energy projects, some, including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, panned the effort.
“What our Democratic colleagues have produced is a phony fig leaf that would actually set back the cause of real permitting reform,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
McConnell said he would vote against proceeding to the short-term spending bill if it included Manchin’s legislation and encouraged others to vote no, too, a powerful signal to GOP lawmakers.
Other Republicans made clear they agreed with McConnell’s position.
Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he would vote against the continuing resolution if it’s included.
“We have made significant progress toward a Continuing Resolution that is as clean as possible. But, if the Democrats insist on including permitting reform, I will oppose it,” Shelby said.
Top Democratic appropriators also said they were unhappy with the inclusion of Manchin’s proposal, but said keeping the government running took priority.
“I am disappointed that unrelated permitting reform was attached to this bill. This is a controversial matter that should be debated on its own merits,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “However, with four days left in the fiscal year, we cannot risk a government shutdown; we must work to advance this bill.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline sought by Manchin would run through Virginia for about 100 miles. Manchin’s plan would expedite the pipeline and steer legal challenges to a different federal court.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he opposes an expedited review for the pipeline and will vote against taking up the package if it included the pipeline language, another sign that lawmakers didn’t have the 60 votes needed to move forward.
“We should pass a continuing resolution that is free of the unprecedented and dangerous” pipeline deal, Kaine said.
The disaster assistance in the bill includes $2.5 billion to help New Mexico communities recover from the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history; $2 billion for a block grant program that aids the economic recovery of communities impacted by recent disasters and $20 million for water and wastewater infrastructure improvements previously authorized for Jackson, Mississippi.
The bill would also provide an additional $1 billion for a program that helps low income households afford to heat their homes.
There has been wide, bipartisan support for boosting support for Ukraine. The bill includes $4.5 billion to help Ukraine’s government provide basic citizen services and authorizes the president to drawdown $3.7 billion worth of equipment from U.S. stocks to support Ukraine’s armed forces. There’s also money to replenish U.S. stocks of equipment and munitions sent to Ukraine and to provide Ukraine with intelligence support and training.
“With Russia holding fake elections to annex parts of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people urgently need our support to continue protecting their families and defending global democracy,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee.