House GOP eyes a new demand in debt talks: Energy permitting

A growing bloc of House Republicans is urging Speaker Kevin McCarthy to consider demands beyond the budget — like energy permitting — in the party’s opening offer to Democrats on raising the debt limit.

While many GOP lawmakers say they’ve stayed intentionally mum on how their party leaders should proceed with talks, a growing number are now floating their own ideas to stem the looming fiscal crisis. One idea that’s been gaining traction recently is linking the debt limit debate to the GOP’s proposal to speed up energy permitting, according to interviews with roughly a half dozen lawmakers.

“I think permitting’s got to be part of the debt limit discussion,” said Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), who chairs the Republican Policy Committee and sits on McCarthy’s leadership team.

House Republicans see plenty of upside in attaching energy permitting to debt talks. In addition to giving them a guaranteed policy win, pushing through a permitting bill that already has keen interest from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is preparing for a potentially brutal 2024 reelection bid.

The Republican Study Committee, the House GOP’s biggest group, has gone even further in its advocacy of the move. It recently polled its 175 members about their priorities for the looming debt talks and found that members’ top priority for inclusion was energy permitting.

“It has tons of momentum,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who leads that group, said in a brief interview. “That’s certainly pro-growth to keep our jobs here, and have less dependency on foreign governments and don’t send money elsewhere.”

Most of the conference is working hard to publicly give McCarthy space as the California Republican tries to force President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate to come to the table, with the deadline for raising the debt limit drawing ever closer. But privately, Republicans across the conference are clearly interested in landing one of their biggest energy agenda items in return for what many view as an inevitable political reality — that some of them will have to vote to raise the country’s spending limit later this year.

“This is the litmus test of whether we’re serious to get energy independent. I think we will,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), when asked about linking the GOP’s energy permitting bill to its debt offer.

It’s unclear whether Democrats would be willing to engage, Norman added, but “we’re gonna give it a shot.”

The idea has an added political bonus for GOP leadership: While plenty of fiscal fights divide House Republicans’ narrow majority, the idea of attaching speedier energy project approvals to the debt talks creates rare unity among what the speaker has dubbed the conference’s “five families,” from the conservative Freedom Caucus to the more moderate, business-oriented Main Street Caucus.

“That’s certainly something a large number of members would be supportive of,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), chair of the latter of those two groups, when asked about linking permitting with debt discussions.

While McCarthy has said nothing publicly on the issue so far, some in his inner circle have discussed the issue and believe it is a “real possibility,” according to one person in GOP leadership who spoke on condition of anonymity. Still, it’s not the only policy demand being discussed: Several lawmakers have pointed to other things they’d like to be included, such as work requirements or border restrictions.

There’s at least one reason that more Republicans are suddenly more interested in speaking publicly on their party’s opening bid on the debt limit — recent moves by the Freedom Caucus. The Donald Trump-aligned group surprised many in the conference earlier this month when they released their own list of demands in the debt discussions, putting down the first formal GOP marker in the talks.

And some GOP lawmakers privately said they were unhappy that their colleagues had gotten ahead of McCarthy, particularly with such big policy asks.

A portion of the GOP is more skeptical, though, insisting that Republicans already have strong leverage to get their permitting push over the finish line, given Democrats’ intense interest in the subject.

“I think it needs to be something more than that. I think you can probably get permitting on its own because it’s such tremendous bipartisan support,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.).

And House Natural Resources Committee Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) said that while he had heard increasing chatter about the proposal, it was too early in the conversations to know what might be included.

“I think everybody’s looking at what we can do with the debt limit to actually address the debt crisis. We know that if we develop energy and mining here in the U.S., that would mean more revenue, more jobs,” Westerman said.

Westerman added that he believed the permitting push could, indeed, help the debt crisis by increasing revenue and increasing jobs: “I think it’s real, because it’s being discussed. But is it going to be the thing on the debt limit?”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

Insisting on a link between the two topics, if party leaders embrace the idea, could give Republicans a near-guaranteed win on a signature issue.  

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