Vice President Dick Cheney and key Cabinet members were dispatched around the country early last week in an effort to resuscitate the public’s interest in the Bush administration’s package of energy proposals, which had been largely stalled in Congress after being unveiled to much fanfare in May.

But that changed last week as House committees marked up major energy proposals — opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling, more royalty relief for exploration in deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico, additional tax breaks and incentives for producers, expanded Interior Department authority to receive payment of royalties in-kind, and greater energy conservation and efficiency gains — with an eye towards voting on comprehensive energy legislation before Congress leaves for summer recess, which is scheduled to begin in early August.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for all energy bills in that chamber, continued to hold hearings last week, and predicted it will begin mark-up of comprehensive legislation before the recess.

Cheney last week said he expected comprehensive energy legislation to be passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush by the end of the year. “I personally am optimistic that we will get good [energy] legislation out of the Congress before the end of the year,” he said during a town hall meeting on the president’s national energy plan in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, last Monday.

He was joined by a star-studded cast that included Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, the state’s Republican delegation from Capitol Hill — Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum and Rep. Melissa Hart — and senior administration staff officials.

As a first step toward a comprehensive bill, “we [have to] get everybody to sort of settle down a bit in terms of the debate [and] calmly listen to one another,” Cheney advised. “There’s a reason why nobody’s addressed this [energy] in recent years. These are tough issues, and I’ll be the first to admit…it’s going to involve controversy, it’s going to involve tough decisions, but we need to do it,” he noted

“The House, I think, will take up a bill on the floor before the August break,” Cheney predicted. “I met [recently] with what’s called the centrist coalition of the Senate,” which is chaired by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and John Breaux (D-LA), “and they’re very interested in moving forward on a bipartisan basis on the program.”

Cheney noted that he’s also conferred with Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to discuss the prospects for a bill. “He hasn’t moved a bill yet. But I’m hopeful that he will, and that we’ll have legislation before the end of the year.”

Santorum accused Senate Democrats of stalling on energy legislation, and called on Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) to make it a priority. “The Senate Democrats have offered nothing, absolutely nothing as far as an energy policy. They have scheduled no floor time for debate or consideration of an energy bill.”

In what some observers perceived as a major shift in energy strategy, Cheney and senior administration staff in Pittsburgh touted the Bush proposals to improve energy conservation and efficiency, and to raise funding to assist low-income and senior citizens with their energy bills. Conservation “is a must in this plan,” said Cheney adviser Mary Matalin, who reported that many of the Bush conservation proposals were being marked up in Congress last week. But while conservation is a “great start,” she said it was only part of the solution. “If you want to close that gap [between supply and demand], you have to increase conventional production” as well.

“Most of the financial incentives that we recommended to the Congress…are in the area of conservation and renewables,” said Cheney, who led the task force that drafted the Bush energy plan. Due to technology advancements, “our ability to go out and…produce more and conserve more and get more efficient and enhance the environment is there.” Because western Pennsylvania is a region that is rich in coal reserves, he also accented the Bush energy policy’s initiatives for clean-coal technology.

Noting that he could “appreciate the squeeze” facing senior citizens in the state, Ridge said he believed the long-term solution to high energy costs was the introduction of retail choice nationwide. This would give electric customers access to the lowest priced reserves within and outside of Pennsylvania, he noted.

Andrew Lundquist, executive director of the energy task force, said the Department of Energy was “actively” drafting retail competition legislation, and was “looking to release that in the next month or so.” The measure, among other things, would address increased electricity competition, greater energy efficiency and enhanced use of renewable energy, he noted.

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