Failing to find two additional votes, Republican-led proponents abandoned all hope late Monday of passing omnibus energy legislation in the Senate before adjourning, effectively stranding the bill in Congress until next year. GOP leaders vowed to pick up where they left off when they return in late January.
“We will not have time to do it [the energy bill] in this session. But we will be taking it up in January,” said a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN). “We will be working over the recess to bring all sides to an agreement” on the measure. The Senate adjourned Tuesday and is scheduled to return around Jan. 20.
Capitol Hill experts and analysts generally believe that carrying the bill over to 2004 will sentence it to a “slow death” because lawmakers won’t want to tackle the hot-button issue of energy in an election year. But past history could prove them wrong. The first comprehensive energy bill, “The Energy Policy Act of 1992,” was passed by Congress in October of that year, just weeks before the presidential election which the first President Bush lost.
This year’s bill contained proposals and incentives that galvanized Democrats, Republicans and an Independent in their opposition, including an initiative offering retroactive protection to makers of the gasoline additive MTBE against lawsuits involving MTBE-contaminated groundwater, too much pork-barrel spending, including tax credits for ethanol, and proposed rollbacks of federal clean air and water regulations.
Most analysts were predicting that despite the controversial issues, the legislation would get the two-thirds vote in the Senate necessary to propel the measure to the president’s desk. Those issues might have slipped through under the radar, except for the almost universal editorial distaste for the Republican-crafted legislation by the nation’s leading newspapers, all of which voiced their opinions last week during the closing days of debate. The country’s conservative and liberal newspapers hardly ever agree editorially, but they came together on the energy bill. They urged senators to do everything in their power to stop the bill from becoming law.
This may have been the turning point in the debate because it made Republicans aware, probably for the first time, of the depth of the opposition to their bill, and it added fuel to the attacks of the Democratic-led opponents. They had the backing of the media, which they frequently cited in floor arguments.
The Wall Street Journal, in referring to the pork barrel spending in the bill, said “The GOP leadership has greased more wheels than a Nascar pit crew;” The New York Times urged Senate opponents to “launch this dreadful bill into the legislative netherworld where it belongs;” and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said “This bill is about as bad as it gets.”
The Republican-led proponents called the bill the first major overhaul of energy policy in more than a decade, but the opponents saw it as a mishmash of tax incentives and credits and bad policy masquerading as energy legislation.
For the bill to clear Congress in 2004, analysts believe some type of compromise will have to be worked out on the MTBE liability waiver provision that will satisfy senators whose states are affected by MTBE-contaminated groundwater and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), whose congressional districts include MTBE producers. Before giving up on the MBTE safe harbor, its backers would likely want to see the quid pro quo, ethanol tax credits, disappear also.
In addition, many believe the pork-barrel projects in the $31 billion measure will have to be significantly cut. Top candidates for the cutting-room floor are the mall near Shreveport, LA, that would include a Hooters restaurant, and an aquarium for Iowa. The bill’s critics, and there were many, could hardly contain their laughter when they saw these obviously non-energy items in what was supposed to be an energy bill.
There were some good policy calls and they should remain in the bill, analysts agree. These included mandated compliance with electric reliability standards, and for the petroleum industry, streamlined permitting for oil and natural gas producers, increased drilling access on non-park and federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf, royalty relief to spur deep drilling in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and initiatives to boost investment in the power transmission grid and gas pipeline network, just to name a few. Some of the energy efficiency, clean coal and nuclear waste incentive and research and development projects also would deserve a mention.
Natural gas trade groups blamed the Democratic-led opponents, who blocked the energy bill from coming to the Senate floor for an up-and-down vote last Friday, for the measure’s failure this year. “We are extremely disappointed that a minority of senators used parliamentary tactics to block consideration of a bill that otherwise would have won approval of a clear majority of the Senate,” said David Parker, CEO of the American Gas Association, which represents local distribution companies.
Republican proponents needed 60 votes to force a vote on the energy bill, but they fell short by two and were unable to convince any of the opponents to switch their votes by Monday night. That’s when Frist announced that the measure would be delayed until 2004.
Parker accused the bill’s opponents of turning their backs on the nation’s gas customers. “I can assure you that this battle is not over,” he said in a prepared statement.
Likewise, “we will not rest,” said John B. Walker, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which represents independent oil and gas producers. “The majority of the Senate does support passage of the energy bill, and it deserves a fair vote. It’s unfortunate that Senate procedures have forced this bill off the table.”
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