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Senate appropriators advance $38.4 billion energy spending bill

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Committee unanimously sends water and energy bill that would spend $4 billion more than Trump's budget proposal, to full Senate. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Senate appropriators on Thursday sent a $38.4 billion energy and water spending bill to the chamber's floor that is $4 billion more than President Trump's budget request.

The Appropriations Committee approved the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for fiscal 2018 with a near unanimous 30-1 vote, with some Democrats choosing to delay their push to boost renewable energy spending until the bill comes up for a final vote on the floor.

"This legislation makes significant investments in American infrastructure, research, and security," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "I am especially pleased this bill recognizes the importance of the Army Corps of Engineers and federally supported research."

The bill's $38.4 billion in spending for the Energy Department and related agencies is $4.1 billion above President Trump's budget request and $629 million above the government's fiscal 2017 enacted spending level.

The Army Corps would receive a significant boost to $6.2 billion, which is $190 million above fiscal 2017 spending, and $1.2 billion above the president's request. That includes $700 million above the president's request for river and harbor construction, flood storm damage reduction, shore protection, aquatic ecosystem restoration, and related projects authorized by law.

But the bulk of the bill's spending comes goes to the Energy Department, which would receive $31.4 billion.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the committee's energy panel, said the "biggest point of disagreement" with the GOP was on "nuclear weapons" in marking up the bill. But in the end, she said it had been a pleasure to work with her Republican colleagues in crafting the measure.

Feinstein failed to get an amendment included to boost spending for cleaning up nuclear waste sites at defense and non-defense facilities across the nation. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the energy appropriations panel, said he appreciated her amendment, but any increase in funding for cleanup would have to "be decided by the leadership ... but it won't be today."

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., submitted an amendment to boost spending on solar and wind energy at the Department of Energy, but withdrew it and plans to bring it up when the bill reaches the floor.

The amendment would keep spending on renewable energy in fiscal 2018 at its enacted level for the current fiscal year. The bill gives $11.1 billion for a number of energy programs that include solar and wind. A bill summary said the amount is $183 million below the fiscal 2017 enacted level and $3.6 billion above the president's budget request. "Within this total, the bill prioritizes and increases funding for energy programs that encourage U.S. economic competitiveness and that will advance an 'all-of-the-above' solution to U.S. energy independence," according to the summary.

Merkley also voiced support for South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's amendment to keep support for small modular nuclear power plants, or SMRs, in the spending bill. Merkley said the Senate "should continue to consider that option."

At the Thursday markup of the spending bill, Graham said, "for those that believe in climate change, count me in." He continued that without the support of nuclear energy, the nation can't become a low-carbon, green economy.

The bill's report language currently prohibits funds for engineering, design, or regulatory development for next generation light-water reactor technologies.

"Senator Graham wants to remove that language from the report," said Graham's spokesman, Kevin Bishop. "The concern is that the prohibition of funds will significantly slow the continued development of SMRs." Bishop added that Graham is willing to work with Democrats on removing the language.

Nevertheless, Alexander pointed out that the spending bill achieves much in the way of support for research and development on new energy resources.

The legislation voted out of the committee Thursday includes "record levels of funding" for the Office of Science's basic science and energy research, and the Advance Research Project Agency on Energy, or ARPA-E, "which supports transformational, high-impact energy technologies," Alexander said. Trump's budget request included the termination of all funding for ARPA-E.

The bill also boosts spending for clean coal, natural gas and other fossil fuel technologies above the president's request, but below current levels. The bill also boosts spending for nuclear energy development above the president's request.

"Senator Feinstein and I have worked together under very challenging fiscal constraints this year the same way we always have — in a fair and accommodating manner — with the goal of drafting a bipartisan bill that prioritizes spending and reduces waste," Alexander said. "We hope this bill can be one of the first appropriations bills considered by the full Senate this year."