US House Republicans face unity test with major energy bill

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on its first major legislation of the year on Thursday, a partisan energy bill that poses an early test of unity for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s majority.

The 175-page measure, dubbed the Lower Energy Costs Act, represents a top 2022 Republican campaign pledge to lower Americans’ energy costs by scaling back Democratic President Joe Biden’s climate policies and increasing oil and gas production through deregulation.

“This bill, H.R. 1 – House Resolution One, is the most important bill to this Congress,” Republican Representative August Pfluger of Texas told reporters.

“We’re fighting back against the president’s attacks by boosting energy production in America – not cutting it, boosting it – to stop runaway inflation, to make sure the U.S. is not reliant and dependent.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are keen to pass legislation that streamlines permitting for energy projects, but the disagreement over the House bill reflects gaping divisions over how to do that. 

Democrats want a permitting bill that will pave the way for a swifter adoption of clean energy technologies like solar and wind power that have received lucrative new subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act, while Republicans are pushing for a renewed focus on fossil fuels.

Democrats have decried the legislation as a giveaway for the oil industry. They warn that it would also repeal a greenhouse gas reduction fund aimed at reducing pollution and creating green energy jobs, while also eliminating a methane reduction program that charges polluters for releasing the greenhouse gas.

“This bill is nothing more than a grab bag of Big Oil giveaways and loopholes that endanger the health, safety and security of Americans,” said Representative Frank Pallone, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“It does absolutely nothing to lower energy costs for American families. In fact, it will actually drive costs up while doubling down on costly fossil fuels,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has labeled the legislation as “dead on arrival” in the Democratic-led Senate, and the White House has said that Biden would veto the measure if it reached his desk.

With Republicans holding a narrow 222-213 majority, the legislation will serve as a test of McCarthy’s ability to marshal his members on major legislation, as Congress prepares for bigger fights this summer over the $31.4 trillion U.S. debt ceiling and funding for the federal government.

The chamber’s party breakdown allows for as few as five Republican dissenters to block legislation, if others vote along party lines.

The energy bill has stirred reservations from at least five Republicans, including Florida lawmakers who oppose existing wind energy leases off the state’s coast saying that the turbines would interfere with the military and migratory birds. The lawmakers back an amendment that would delay lease sales until an independent government watchdog can review the potential impact.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said that nearly all Republicans support the legislation and predicted it would pass.

Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida lawmaker who has expressed reservations about the bill, also said behind-the-scenes discussions were going in the right direction.

“We’re making a lot of progress on that and I’m feeling better and better about it,” Gaetz told Reuters.

Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, who sought unsuccessfully to make the package more climate friendly, said his vote will depend on what the legislation includes after a series of amendment votes. “I want to see what the final bill is going to look like,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Deepa Babington)