Updated 2:44 p.m. | Top senators signaled the White House threatened to veto a Senate spending bill over a possible amendment from Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to block EPA power plant regulations.
The amendment, billed by the Kentucky Republican as a fight against the Environmental Protection Agency's "war on coal" was cited by the chairwomen of the full Appropriations Committee and the Energy-Water Subcommittee as the key factor in removing that fiscal 2015 bill from Thursday morning's markup agenda.
"The amendment was a bill-killer. If it didn't lead to defeat on the Senate floor, it would have resulted in a White House veto, as the chairman has said," said subcommittee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. The California Democrat said the White House confirmed a veto threat over the amendment on Wednesday.
McConnell's amendment would have required certification of no job losses or electricity cost increases as a result of the implementation of the EPA's proposed regulations on carbon emissions from existing power plants.
"What gave us pause last night, in consultation with Sen. Feinstein, was legislative matters that could really cloud the bill, and also in the cloud and fog of trying to move bills, the White House was threatening a veto," Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski said. "I wanted to press on. The fog was such that Sen. Feinstein, in consultation with me and Sen. Reid, so it was the three of us — so there's no throwing anybody under the bus here — said postpone."
Energy-Water ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., tied the delay of the bill that he worked to craft with Feinstein to the broader GOP complaints about the floor operations of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., including a recurring blockade of floor amendments
"I'm so troubled by the decision today to — I hope — temporarily not deal with the Energy-Water bill, which is such a terrific piece of legislation," Alexander said, adding that in committee debating the bill "there might be three or four amendments, maybe they're important, maybe they're controversial, maybe they'll come out in a different way than the Democratic leadership would like, but that's what we do in the United States Senate and I hope we'll think about that not just for today but in the future."
There were indications the dispute had created a rift between Alexander and Feinstein, longtime partners on the subcommittee.
"Lamar, there's no one I'd rather work with in the Senate than you. We have had a history of working together" Feinstein said. "I was very disturbed by our phone call last night."
"As the chairman said, I asked her last night to delay the bill after learning that an amendment would be offered to halt progress on the recently proposed EPA rule on greenhouse gas pollution," Feinstein said, saying she was "happy to have this fight."
"The amendment was clearly not germane or relevant or within the scope of the Energy and Water bill," Feinstein said. "Although relevance and germaneness standards do not exist for our subcommittee bill, I cannot recall an amendment in the 21 years I've been here that is so much outside of the jurisdiction of this subcommittee. We do not handle EPA."
More broadly, Mikulski identified the four bills that have been widely expected to be problematic as the "ugly stepsisters of the appropriations process for fiscal 2015.
"Labor-HHS, controversy on Obamacare. Financial services, controversy on IRS and Obamacare, Interior, controversy on everything. Energy and Water, there will be some environmental concerns," Mikulski said.
The delay of the markup became immediate campaign fodder for Senate Republicans, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee sending around a series of blasts against Democratic senators from energy-producing states for the delay of the markup.
One such statement from NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen criticized Mark Begich of Alaska, a Democratic appropriator, who may very well have voted in favor of the McConnell amendment.
"Mark Begich cannot be both pro-energy development and pro-Harry Reid; one claim undermines the other," Hougesen said. "Begich's failure to fight against these harmful EPA regulations proves that instead of fighting to help Alaska, Begich again has prioritized the liberal Obama agenda."
There was also an NRSC release critical of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running against McConnell in Kentucky.
The issue with the Energy-Water bill came in an atmosphere that was already charged by difficulty reaching an agreement on a path for considering amendments to a three-bill "minibus" spending package on the floor. That package is supposed to include the Commerce-Justice-Science, Transportation-HUD and Agriculture-FDA funding measures.
After lunch Thursday, no deal had been reached to set ground rules for the debate to protect the bills from procedural points of order and the entire process appeared in jeopardy of falling apart.
Appropriations Committee member John Hoeven, R-N.D., said "goodwill" in writing bills to this point could collapse without a robust amendment debate.
"That goodwill cannot continue, and we can't rebuild this process if we can't find a way to vote on relevant germane amendments which meet the rules of this Appropriations Committee and this Senate," the North Dakota Republican said. "This is important for every one of us. This is what we came here, this is what we were elected to do."