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House Energy Chairman Ignites Debate Over Whether to Mark Up Energy Bill

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) last Thursday said he was "strongly" thinking about conducting a "very open markup" of HR 6, last year's failed energy bill, in order to improve upon and update the measure to win broad bipartisan support in the House.

"I would love to have a markup [where we can] improve last year's work product," he said during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality that was convened to explore key energy bill issues. "A lot of what we hear in this hearing" and at the two hearings scheduled for next week "will make the determination of whether we do a markup." His remarks were largely designed to assuage Democrats, who were shut out of the negotiations on the energy bill last year.

Barton had planned to move quickly on a broad energy bill, perhaps even foregoing a markup and sending last year's measure directly to the floor for a vote before the House left for Presidents' Day recess on Feb. 18. But floor action on the bill, which some expected to occur last week, was halted so that the chairmen of three key committees -- House Ways and Means, House Budget and House Energy and Commerce -- could negotiate the cost and tax portion of the energy bill.

They are trying to whittle the tax part of the conference report on HR 6, which ballooned to $31 billion last year, down to about $20 billion, Barton told reporters last week. That still, however, would be nearly triple what the Bush administration proposed in its budget last week for energy tax incentives in fiscal year 2006 ($6.7 billion).

The committee chairman took their scalpels to the tax title of the energy bill after President Bush last week proposed deep budget cuts in domestic programs, including energy. It "was a clear indication of what the White House thinks an energy bill ought to cost," said a Capitol Hill aide.

Committee Republicans favor quick action on the bill, while Democrat members are digging in their heels in support of a markup. Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) said he was "strongly lobbying for him [Barton] to take HR 6 straight to the floor" for a House vote. In fact, the bill ought to have been on the floor last week, he noted. But Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) said Democrats want to have a "real markup" before sending energy legislation to the floor.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) last week said he would consider a new timetable for debating the energy bill when Congress returns from its Presidents' Day recess in early March, Congressional Green Sheets reported in its Thursday edition.

"After the recess, we will have an opportunity to survey the situation and decide where we go," Barton said during a full committee hearing last Wednesday at which Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman testified about the energy bill and proposed budget cuts for the Department of Energy (DOE). "I want to make clear, though, that I have not ruled out a full committee markup on a comprehensive bill."

He said he was optimistic about passage of the energy bill this year. "This is the bill that will not die. This is the year and this is the Congress [in which] we are going to pass comprehensive energy legislation," Barton noted.

"An energy bill has been a long time coming...This year's legislation comes on the heels of four years' work on energy legislation by the House and its committees," he said.

"A total of 179 hours of floor debate and markup debate have been devoted to developing and passing energy policy since the effort was begun in 2001. There were 80 hearings, 12 markup sessions and a total of 279 amendments were considered. Also, House-Senate conference committees met for a total of 72 hours. A comprehensive energy bill has passed the House four times, most recently in the summer of 2004."

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House energy panel, said he wanted more hearings on the energy measure and a markup. By starting with last year's failed conference report on the energy bill, Congress is sending a message that it is not serious about passing meaningful energy legislation this year, he said.

A discussion draft of the bill, which was circulated last week, is "largely similar" to HR 6. "I fear that on the current course we will have two years [more] of partisan gridlock" on energy, Dingell noted.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) made it quite clear that she opposes HR 6, and that she expects it to meet the "same fate" during this session as last year. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) called for a "more middle-of-the-road bill" than HR 6. "We don't want to be obstructionists, but we have very strong feelings" about aspects of the energy bill.

While he looked forward to the hearings on the energy bill, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) said he was "uncertain" the effort would lead to the enactment of any energy legislation this year.

In other developments on Capitol Hill, the House Science Committee moved the first part of the comprehensive energy bill last Thursday, approving the $44 billion in energy research and development programs.

The House Resources Committee postponed its planned markup of omnibus energy legislation last Wednesday in order to give key committee chairmen time to negotiate the tax portion of the bill. The committee has jurisdiction over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and public lands.

Even with the delay, "I think it [the energy bill] is still coming pretty quick. It's still high priority," said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA). But a leading energy analyst in Washington, DC was less optimistic.

"Every time they [lawmakers] say they're going to come running, shooting out of the gate, it never happens," she said. The "initial time line [for the bill] was extraordinarily aggressive," but that has changed.

At this point, the analyst said, she is "incredibly cynical about the prospects for a bill" emerging from Congress this year. There "is not a strong consensus for just passing HR 6," which is two years old.

Broad energy legislation is "definitely still a top priority" for the House Resources Committee and the entire House, countered committee spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli. She expects energy legislation to be brought to the House floor within the next month or two.

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