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Murkowski takes aim at the middle ground on major energy bill

WASHINGTON -- Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pushing her Senate colleagues to stick to the middle as she attempts to ferry through Congress the first major energy policy bill in more than eight years.

"I want to change energy policy and you can't do that without the legislation becoming law," Murkowski said in an interview last week. "And so not only do we need the support of the House, we need to have the president support it as well."

Murkowski described the bill as "very inclusive by design."

Debate over the bill on the Senate floor began last week and is primed for passage by Thursday.

Murkowski, the Republican chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, moved a suite of bills through her committee last year by a vote of 18-4, a bipartisan margin in a starkly divided Congress.

To make that happen, Murkowski worked with the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, and pared the focus to energy infrastructure, like electrical grids, and energy efficiency, and away from efforts to bolster fossil fuel or renewable energy production. Murkowski's pet legislation -- to lift the decades-old ban on exporting U.S. crude oil -- was introduced separately, and passed along with extended solar and wind tax credits in December as part of the government spending bill.

To move the first major energy bill since 2007, Murkowski and Cantwell looked for energy issues that sidestep legislative land mines, like climate change and offshore oil drilling revenues. The bill instead includes efforts to eliminate duplicate regulations and boost infrastructure development for hydropower and microgrid technology that tie together relatively small geographic areas in electrical grids.

The Senate began considering amendments on Thursday, and will pick up the bill again on Tuesday. Already more than 130 amendments have been filed, though not all will come to a vote.

Amendments of interest to Alaska so far include a bill focused on supporting Indian energy, which Murkowski said would help Alaska Natives, and an amendment that encourages new technologies for wastewater treatment, which Murkowski said could be a positive develop for some rural Alaska villages.

Murkowski said she has been clear with her colleagues that amendments cannot add cost to the bill unless they contain offsets elsewhere. "And members have been very cooperative," she said.

More amendments are expected to be filed on Monday, and while Murkowski said she was pleased with the bipartisan nature of offerings thus far, there's no expectation of that throughout the process.

"We said this was going to be a bipartisan bill; that's what we're trying to encourage. Are we going to keep it that way throughout the entire process? No. I've got to be realistic," Murkowski said.

But she said she was hopeful the Senate will avoid controversial issues and so-called "poison pill" amendments that could kill the bill.

"I think there is genuine interest in both sides to seeing a bill pass and to seeing a good bill pass," Murkowski said.

If the bill passes, it still needs to gain support of the House, where it is harder to find a middle path.

A prior House-passed energy bill "was far more partisan and I think that was reflected in the way the administration treated it," Murkowski said.

She noted it is the Senate's turn to chair a conference committee for the energy bill to reconcile House and Senate versions, a position that provides greater leverage.

And "the stronger a bipartisan vote we have, I think the more we will be able to weigh in at conference with these provisions to try to keep them bipartisan," Murkowski said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, have both expressed support for the bill.

The White House issued a statement of qualified support this week, lauding the bill's focus on "energy efficiency, energy infrastructure, energy supply, and conservation." But the administration is concerned about several provisions, such as a repeal of Energy Department programs focused on improving energy efficiency at manufacturing facilities, the statement said.

But the "Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to address these and other concerns as the bill moves through the legislative process," the statement said, stopping well short of a veto threat.

But not everyone is on board.

The conservative Heritage Foundation has argued the bill "siphons taxpayer dollars and hands them to special interests."

And Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning argued the bill "continues the practice of picking energy winners and losers, expands federal government authority and fails to turn control of federal lands back to the states." He encouraged the Senate to reject it.

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