Will Congress move in the lame-duck session to clear an energy-efficiency bill? Groups like the American Institute of Architects and Alliance to Save Energy sure hope so.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate unanimously passed such a measure  early in the morning of Sept. 22, just before the start of its pre-election break. The big question is whether the House will follow suit in the post-election session.

One part of the Senate-approved measure is of direct interest to architects and engineers. It would permit the General Services Administration to tap its unused appropriations to modify designs for not-yet-constructed federal buildings projects to incorporate updated energy standards.

Andrew Goldberg, AIA managing director of government relations, says, "It's going to help GSA really improve the designs of some of their projects," and use existing funds to add energy-saving enhancements.

Goldberg adds that some GSA projects can have completed designs but sit on the shelf for a while, awaiting funds for construction. In the meantime, he says, "If the energy standards changed, the GSA would...have to go back to Congress to ask for more money to update the design." If enacted, the bill would avoid the need to make that follow-up funding request.

The design provision was part of a bipartisan amendment, authored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). It does set a limit on the design-update money, specifying that those funds cannot exceed 125% of the estimated energy cost savings the new design would produce.

The Shaheen-Portman amendment also has provisions directing federal agencies to develop "best practices" for advanced metering of energy use in federal buildings and to coordinate R&D work among some DOE offices.

The underlying bill deals with efficiency standards for appliances. Its main architect is Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who will retire at the end of this Congress.

Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan said in a statement, "Securing bold Senate action on energy efficiency in the lame duck session would be a wonderful ‘swan song’ to cap the long legacy of important national energy efficiency policies that Jeff Bingaman has amassed in his Senate career...."

In the House, the Republican majority has focused on other types of energy legislation—for example, to boost oil and gas exploration and speed approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The Senate bill does include some House-passed provisions, including language that would change the energy-efficiency standard for walk-in freezers and establish a new, less-stringent efficiency standard for the types of "over-the-counter" refrigerators that bakeries and delis use to display their wares.

Those provisions—and the force of the Senate's unanimous approval of its bill—could be starting points for compromise with the House.