Bipartisan energy bill at a standstill over coolant amendment

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A sweeping energy package aimed at fighting climate change, which was meant to have bipartisan backing, has reached an impasse in the Senate over a coolant amendment.

The energy legislation, introduced by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, would boost efficiency and authorize billions of dollars to develop clean energy options to eliminate greenhouse gases. It would also enhance grid security and support efforts to capture and remove carbon emissions at their source, from coal and natural gas plants.

The bill, though widely supported by both parties, stalled over a proposed amendment to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, over 15 years. HFCs are the coolants used in refrigerators and air conditioners and are widely considered to be a major driver of global warming. They are being limited in countries across the globe.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana and Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware pushed for the amendment, saying it would spur U.S. companies to produce “next-generation” coolants as an alternative to HFCs. Both senators hail from states which are home to companies that produce alternative refrigerants.

The amendment was supported by at least three dozen senators, including 17 Republicans who signed on as co-sponsors. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, however, opposed the amendment.

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Without a vote on the HFC language, the energy bill was derailed in a procedural vote, 47-44. It would need 60 votes to proceed to a floor debate.

"It is beyond frustrating to have our bill, which contains priorities from more than 70 senators, held up by an unrelated dispute that was never part of our discussions in the lead-up to this floor process,” said Murkowski. She said lawmakers "will regroup and look for a path forward, but finding one will require members to be more reasonable and accommodating than they have been in the last week.''

Senate Minority Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., said he’d be voting “no” ahead of Monday night’s vote unless McConnell agreed to let the coolant amendment get a vote and accused McConnell of blocking an otherwise popular amendment.

“They’re thousands of times more damaging to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Phasing out these HFCs is very important. And it will go a long way in fighting climate change and protecting the environment for future generations,” he said, according to The Hill.

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The Kennedy-Carper amendment would limit coolants consistent with a 2016 global deal to phase them out. Scientists at that time estimated that doing so could avoid half a degree Celsius of global warming by the end of the century.

McConnell denied he was to blame on the issue, and said he was disappointed at the impasse.

“Contrary to the Democratic leader’s assertions on the floor, I am certainly not blocking any bipartisan amendments,'' McConnell said Tuesday. "What is really happening is that the Democrat leader is moving the goalposts.''

McConnell in his remarks ahead of the vote, praised the bill as-is saying it has provisions from three fourths of the Senate.

Barrasso said he won’t consider the coolant provisions unless language is added explicitly prohibiting states from setting their own standards in excess of the federal standards.

Proponents said states would likely adhere to the federal standard, and language preempting state action would set a bad precedent.

Kennedy accused fellow GOP leaders of blocking a vote on the amendment “because they’re scared it’ll pass.”

Even if McConnell and other leaders oppose the amendment, they should allow a vote, Kennedy said in a floor speech. "OK, you don't agree with the amendment. That's why God made roll-call votes,'' he said.

Kennedy said the energy bill was now “dead as a doornail,” but Carper seemed more optimistic. "We’ve come too far to give up now.''

McConnell said he was not giving up in a speech Tuesday. He voted no on the procedural measure Monday so he will be in a position under Senate rules to ask for a new vote if agreement can be reached.

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“I hope we can get past this showmanship, finish this bipartisan legislation and send it to the House so we can get it on the president’s desk,'' McConnell said. “Let’s not squander this opportunity [to] help our nation move toward greater energy security, energy efficiency and energy affordability for years to come.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.