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How a permitting deal could play out

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May 18, 2023
Illustration of a one-dollar bill with the denomination reading NOPE.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

🎲 Talk of a permitting deal on the debt ceiling is reaching a crescendo. It’s worth gaming out how that might work.

Why it matters: Striking even a small-scale permits agreement in two weeks is going to be difficult.

Here are a few possible scenarios, based on our conversations:

1. All or nothing: It looks unlikely that negotiators can strike a grand bargain that pairs Republican ambitions to overhaul environmental laws with Democratic policies to speed up transmission deployment.

Our thought bubble: Since House passage of H.R. 1, the Hill has been in an “airing of grievances” stage.

  • Democrats are arguing for community engagement, agency funding and transmission. Republicans are calling for more aggressive changes to the National Environmental Policy, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.
  • Those are tough to reconcile, and senators want to pace themselves: “I’m a big proponent of regular order,” Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper said.
  • It’s possible that permitting gets dropped from this conversation altogether in a deal focused on budget cuts and entitlement programs.

2. The two-step: House GOP negotiator Garret Graves raised the idea last week of striking a smaller permits deal to travel with the debt ceiling and agreeing to come back later and work on more contentious items.

  • That likely means changes to NEPA sought by the GOP and centrist Democrats with a promise to work on transmission policy later.

What they’re saying: Senators aren’t really entertaining this.

  • “I don't see how we get two bites at this apple,” Shelley Moore Capito told reporters outside an EPW hearing yesterday.
  • Added Martin Heinrich: “I don't put a ton of stock into hypotheticals from the House.”

Our thought bubble: NEPA timelines, agency coordination and expanding permitting exclusions for low-impact projects all have some bipartisan appeal on their own.

  • But, said moderate Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, “there’s a lot of work that needs to go into permitting reform. We just don’t have the time.”

3. Deal to make a deal: President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy could drop permitting in the debt ceiling — or include some nominal piece of H.R. 1 — and strike a formal agreement to work out a broader permits bill later.

What they’re saying: “What happens in a deal to make a deal is that you lose a little bit of incentive,” Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer told Axios.

  • “You'd want to sign it in blood, almost,” he joked.
  • When House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman was asked about this scenario, he said, “I don't want to have a non-robust permitting agreement and then let it drop off and not do anything further down the road.”

Our thought bubble: We saw how this worked out for Sen. Joe Manchin when Democrats promised a vote on his permitting legislation last year.

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