President Bush made only a short reference to the omnibus energy bill (HR 6) in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but it apparently was enough of an impetus for Senate Republican leaders and natural gas trade groups who have not given up on the ailing measure. A leading energy policy analyst, however, interpreted the president’s “brief reference” as a sign that the energy bill is no longer a high priority of the Bush White House.

“For the third consecutive year, President Bush has called on Congress to pass an energy bill. We are closer to that goal today than we have been any time in these last three years,” said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), who chaired the committee that produced a conference report on the energy bill last year. That conference report was passed by the House in November, but it stalled in the Senate when Republicans fell two votes shy of the 60 that were needed to bring the report to the floor.

A second attempt to bring the energy bill to the Senate floor for a vote is scheduled for late February, according to Congressional Green Sheets. In the meantime, behind-the-scene discussions are on-going to break up the comprehensive bill into stand-alone measures. But Domenici remains committed to getting the entire omnibus bill through the Senate.

“The one option I absolutely will not consider is breaking this bill up. I will resist such an effort with every resource I have,” said the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over energy legislation. “It’s the start of the year and we’re only two votes down. It’s far too early to talk about breaking this bill up” into pieces.

“I am confident I can nail down the [two] votes we need for cloture,” noted Domenici, but he added that he was “still concerned” that Republican fiscal conservatives who object to the bill’s net $24 billion cost to the Treasury over the next 10 years might raise budget points of order, which could kill the bill. A budget point of order would require 60 votes to overcome.

He said he plans to work closely with the House leadership over the next few weeks “to see what steps we can take to get the last few votes we need for final passage” in the Senate.

But energy analyst Christine Tezak of Charles Schwab & Co. Inc.’s Washington Research Group said she was less-than-enthusiastic about the prospects for the energy bill this year, particularly following the State of the Union address. “Last week, a senior Senate staffer suggested to us that the energy bill’s success [was] heavily contingent on the White House helping the bill’s manager [Domenici] muster votes to overcome expected budget points of order that could sink the bill. Based on the president’s brief reference to energy in the State of the Union message [Tuesday], we’re unconvinced that such help is in the offing.”

Bush’s “one-sentence reference well into his speech [to energy]…makes clear, in our view, that the priority assigned to this issue has faded,” Tezak wrote in a review of the president’s speech. “There was no reference to the historically high natural gas prices that have been cited by the bill’s supporters as a key rationale to [pass] the bill, no reference to supply-demand issues (instead the tired refrain of dependence on foreign sources, which stands in stark contrast to the boom in liquefied natural gas interest), and no reference to the technological wonders of the hydrogen program either.”

The president “dutifully called for passage of the Republican-developed bill, but [he] didn’t use the occasion to ‘sell’ it at all in our opinion,” Tezak said. “We continue to be pessimistic on the bill’s chances of getting through the Senate and eventually onto the president’s desk this year.”

Two gas groups, the American Gas Association (AGA) and the Natural Gas Supply Association (NGSA), gave Bush high marks for his performance Tuesday, and said they remained committed to passage of the omnibus energy bill.

“We applaud the president for continuing to stress the importance of comprehensive energy legislation to a Senate who seems to care more about playing politics than it does about the American economy and our national security…We will continue to educate the Senate on the importance of passing this legislation,” said AGA President David Parker.

“The natural gas industry salutes the president’s public appeal to Congress. The sooner the [energy] bill gets signed, the sooner the American public will see the benefits of its long-anticipated provisions,” noted NGSA President Joseph A. Blount.

“As we’ve seen this winter, tight supply in the natural gas industry has led to increased volatility in the market, putting consumers — the American public — at risk for continuing upward pressure on natural gas prices…Though the energy bill cannot be expected to solve all our nation’s supply and demand challenges, it will certainly be the first step toward a more balanced energy policy and a more secure energy future,” he said.

“Looking ahead, however, in order to meet the nation’s growing energy needs, the industry will continue to push for more access to viable domestic resources, including non-park, multi-use federal land.”

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