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Senate Cries for Gas Price Probe Could 'Work Strongly Against' Energy Bill in 2004

Senate Cries for Gas Price Probe Could 'Work Strongly Against' Energy Bill in 2004

Calls by senators for investigations and/or hearings into causes behind the latest run-up in prices for natural gas could turn out to be the final nail in the coffin of the omnibus energy bill (HR 6) that was stalled in the Senate last year, said a leading energy policy analyst.

"We think calls by some politicians for investigations into price spikes and accusations of manipulation of the [gas] markets work strongly against [the] bill's passage" when the Senate returns for the second session later this month, wrote Christine Tezak of Charles Schwab Capital Markets' Washington Research Group (WRG) in a review of the energy bill's prospects in 2004.

"Why pass [an energy] bill if it's all trader mischief? Unless congressional members in vulnerable seats feel that passing an energy bill brings election dividends...we think the conference report on HR 6 could yet die a slow and protracted death in the upper chamber," she said.

"We're...very pessimistic on the 2004 prospects for the Senate passing the energy bill [that was] passed by the House before recess. Parliamentary gymnastics to pass at least parts of it are likely to be attempted, but success is uncertain. Prices -- and politicians' reaction to them -- are the wildcard," according to Tezak.

Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee indicated last week that he found the two votes needed to bring the energy bill to the Senate floor for a vote, but he also said he may be "as many as four votes shy of final passage." Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) reportedly said he can deliver five or six votes in favor of the bill if the Senate would drop provisions reducing liability for the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), which competes with corn-based ethanol.

The Senate could vote to bring the energy bill to the floor as early as January, but Tezak said WRG's sources don't anticipate an actual up-and-down vote on the measure until March "while additional votes to reach a simply majority [are] drummed up."

One of the biggest threats to the energy bill in the Senate will be the Republican fiscal conservatives, such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who object to the bill's net $24 billion cost to the Treasury over a 10-year period. "They could sink the bill with a Budget Point of Order when it is finally on the Senate floor," she noted. A budget point of order requires 60 votes to overcome.

In the end, "WRG sources are generally pessimistic (with the caveat 'never say never!') on the prospects for the unwieldy and expensive comprehensive measure passing the Senate in the same form as it emerged from conference and passed the House" in November. If the Senate should make changes to the measure, the House would be required to vote on the bill again.

Nevertheless, "extraordinary parliamentary maneuvers to pass all or parts of the bill are not only possible, but we think likely. The eventual success of those efforts, however, is far more difficult to handicap at this early stage," Tezak said.

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