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WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators from both parties said Wednesday they still hope to negotiate energy permitting reform bill this year, reviving efforts to streamline the process after West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III had to pull back his plan amid broad opposition.

The Manchin proposal was attached to a must-pass government funding bill as part of a deal he struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer this summer to advance the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act. But permitting reform was rejected by GOP senators irked by that deal and members of his own party.

Alarge group of House Democrats — and a smaller Senate cohort — intensely opposed what they characterized as a fossil-fuel-friendly measure from the start, saying Manchin would weaken environmental protections and make it more difficult for communities to object to new construction. The House opposition was led by progressive Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, but also included leaders of budget and spending panels.

Senate Republicans meanwhile refused to endorse the Manchin-Schumer deal that allowed the passage of Democrats’ sweeping climate, health and taxes bill this summer, even if they agreed in principle that permitting requirements should be updated.

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Despite the widespread condemnation of his measure, Manchin said Wednesday he expects to keep working to get an agreement before the new year, a goal many of his fellow senators said they share.

Manchin said he plans to talk with fellow West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, when the two are back in their home state next month, noting he’s optimistic the duo can work out a final bill.

“We just have to find the sweet spot, find the middle that kind of appeases the majority,” Manchin said.

The centrist Democrat nodded when asked by a reporter if Schumer had assured him he’d try again with another floor vote.

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Mountain Valley Pipeline in Roanoke County near the Blue Ridge Parkway in July 2018. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

Mountain Valley Pipeline

After stripping Manchin’s permitting bill from the must-pass government spending package, Schumer pledged Tuesday evening to “have conversations about the best way to ensure responsible permitting reform is passed before the end of the year.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement Tuesday night saying President Joe Biden “supports Senator Manchin’s plan because it is necessary for our energy security, and to make more clean energy available to the American people.”

“We will continue to work with him to find a vehicle to bring this bill to the floor and get it passed and to the President’s desk,” she added.

Whether Manchin’s bill would still include the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline running from West Virginia to Virginia was unclear on Wednesday.

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Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who was furious Manchin’s permitting reform bill included approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, said he believes there’s a good outlook for a bipartisan permitting reform bill, estimating it could get at least 70 votes in the Senate.

Work on permitting reform by the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Manchin, has already found a good starting point for a bipartisan bill, Kaine said.

“They worked on it very, very carefully,” Kaine said, noting he’s not on either of those panels. “I don’t want to tell them what their timing should be. But they’re down the road, and there’s a bipartisan group that wants to do it, including me.”

On the Mountain Valley Pipeline, Kaine said he didn’t want to get into “a hypothetical world and what might be acceptable.”

But Kaine, who has said he was not consulted about the inclusion of the pipeline in the Manchin plan, did say the way Manchin handled the pipeline in his bill wasn’t the right way to go.

“It was taking something out of permitting and saying, ‘You don’t have to comply,’” Kaine said. “But permitting reforms could make the process better, and then Mountain Valley and others could have a better process to go through.”

Republicans want another try

During a brief interview Wednesday, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he hopes there’s a way for Democrats and Republicans to draft a bill after the elections and before the next Congress begins that both parties could support.

“It’s an issue that we need to address. And it’s a significant obstacle to continue to allow us to develop our natural resources,” Daines said. “It’s not just about energy. It’s also about forestry. It’s about mining, and it takes way too long to get projects approved.”

Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said a permitting reform bill is essential for lawmakers who want to see more fossil fuel extraction as well as those who want “cleaner forms of energy.”

“I hope we can sit down and put together a permitting bill,” Kennedy said. “I mean, no fair-minded person can believe that it should take five, seven, eight years to get a project permitted in America. I don’t care what the project is.”

Kennedy said the rejection of Manchin’s permitting reform bill was about more than just signaling the GOP wanted a more bipartisan bill.

He said it was about members of both parties sending a message to Manchin following months of negotiations on the Democrats’ spending package from this summer that included money for renewable energy, among dozens of other provisions.

“What I saw happen yesterday — how can I explain this — two wrongs rarely make it right, but they do make it even,” Kennedy said. “And what happened yesterday was people who are unhappy with Senator Manchin, on both sides of the aisle, made it even.”

“We now have a fresh start, and I hope we can sit down and put together a permitting bill,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said he’d like a final, bipartisan energy permitting reform bill to set firm end dates for studies into energy projects.

“I don’t want to foreclose anybody’s right to study or object, but have some hard and fast rule saying this is the end of the process,” he said. “Two or three years is plenty of time for people to be able to study a project before a decision has to be made.”

Louisiana GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy said more lawmakers than just Schumer and Manchin need to be involved in drafting the measure if it’s going to have any chance of becoming law and improving the energy permitting process.

“I’d like to have some sort of shot clock with teeth so that agencies can’t just sit on an application and do a pocket veto of things that otherwise meet every criteria. This permitting reform did not really have that,” Cassidy said.

He said he doesn’t mind if a bipartisan bill gets attached to an unrelated must-pass bill, saying he’s “never a purist on procedure.”

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said he’d like to have more input in negotiating the permitting reform bill.

Tricky path

If senators, and possibly their U.S. House colleagues, work out a bipartisan bill, Schumer will have to decide how to move the legislation through the floor.

Given the amount of time it takes to move stand-alone legislation on the U.S. Senate floor, and the short amount of time the chamber will be in Washington, D.C., during the lame duck session following the midterm elections, several lawmakers have floated the idea of attaching permitting reform to a must-pass bill.

One possible option is the National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon’s annual policy bill, which Schumer has said the chamber will take up during October.

That option might not be especially appealing to panel members who have traditionally walled off the bill from policy proposals that aren’t directly related to defense or national security.

Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said Wednesday she doesn’t want to see a permitting reform bill tacked onto the defense policy bill.

“I don’t know that that’s a good idea. I’ll be honest,” Ernst said. “I’d rather see germane amendments being placed, and we have a lot of amendments that we would like to see come up that are germane. So to have one that’s not germane be placed upon the NDAA would probably create some heartache.”

Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.

by Jennifer Shutt, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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