New US Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer will be his party's main line of defense in 2017 against a Republican-controlled White House and Congress that may seek to undo much of President Barack Obama's energy and climate policies.
Trump and his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill have vowed to repeal several Obama administration rules for the energy sector, including the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan and more recent regulations, such as the U.S. Department of the Interior's Stream Protection Rule and methane standards for oil and gas producers on public and tribal lands. Despite the GOP's advantage, Democrats have promised to battle efforts to roll back environmental protections for the energy sector and block Trump cabinet nominees who do not believe in climate action.
"We're going to fight hard to make sure that the Senate is a bulwark against those who want to undo environmental protections [in 2017]," Schumer said in a statement to S&P Global Market Intelligence. The New York lawmaker took over as head of Senate Democrats when the new Congress convened Jan. 3, replacing retiring U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
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Justin Goodman, regional media director for the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, said key priorities for Schumer and other Senate Democrats in 2017 include holding Trump energy nominees' "feet to the fire" in confirmation hearings and preventing the GOP from undoing environmental and climate regulations.
Democrats hope to gain some Republicans support on nominations
The president-elect provoked green groups with several of his Cabinet nominations, including Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and Clean Power Plan opponent Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator. Although nominees only need a simple majority of senators to confirm their appointments, Democrats hope to persuade more climate-focused Republicans to side with them on resisting nominations. Republicans now hold 52 of the 100 Senate seats.
"There obviously are Republicans who have been cautious and some who have raised specific concerns" with Tillerson and Pruitt's nominations, the Natural Resources Defense Council's director of government relations, David Goldston, said at a Dec. 20, 2016, gathering with reporters.
Support from more sympathetic Republicans will also be crucial in blocking legislation to overturn recent Obama administration rules for the energy sector. The Congressional Review Act allows lawmakers to rescind regulations finalized in the past 60 legislative days with backing from a simple majority in the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
With Trump in office, Republicans could marshal enough support to pass the resolutions and get them signed into law. The GOP could also fend off opposition to planned tax reforms by including them in the budget reconciliation process, thereby sheltering the legislation from a filibuster.
Some renewable energy advocates worry that recently extended tax incentives for large-scale wind and solar power could be eliminated to fund other tax cuts, including Trump's goal of lowering the corporate income tax rate.
But Democrats can still put up barriers to the GOP energy agenda, and the Senate will be at the front line of that conflict. Aside from Cabinet confirmations and CRA disapproval resolutions, Senate Republicans will need 60 votes to avoid a filibuster from opposing Democrats. GOP-backed legislation that could encounter resistance in the Senate includes a bill to require congressional approval for major new federal rules before they can take effect.
In addition to defensive measures, Goodman said Schumer and other Democrats will push to extend expiring alternative and smaller-scale renewable energy tax incentives that were excluded from a short-term spending package in December 2016. Democrats may have more luck garnering bipartisan support for that goal, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell previously showing willingness to consider the extensions.
Reid leaves renewable-support legacy
Schumer's predecessor, Reid, was a staunch supporter of renewable energy, particularly solar power. In his final year in the Senate, Reid and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, proposed an amendment to the Senate's broad energy bill that sought to level the playing field between rooftop solar power and other energy sources. Electric power trade groups panned the amendment, which never made it into the energy bill.
Reid's other energy legacies include bitter opposition to construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in Nevada, a project that the Obama administration put on hold. Reid also played an active role in selecting members of independent energy-focused agencies such as FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With a Republican president, Schumer may be more limited in his ability to influence picks for FERC and NRC, or to discourage waste storage at Yucca, although Trump has not taken a public stance on the controversial project.
Areas of possible bipartisan collaboration exist, however, in the new Congress. Schumer voiced enthusiasm for a potential infrastructure bill that Trump and GOP lawmakers want to introduce in the administration's first 100 days. The legislation may benefit electric grid projects. Schumer said the bill should be fueled by direct federal funding, while Trump's preference it to offer tax cuts for privately funded infrastructure projects.