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Democrats Delay Senate Vote on Energy Bill

Politics: The move hurts the Bush plan's chances and gives rivals time to draft an alternative.


WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders announced Tuesday that they will postpone action on new energy legislation until next year, delivering a major blow to one of President Bush's top domestic initiatives.

Their decision diminishes the prospects for several provisions of Bush's plan, including opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies and providing the oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries with about $30 billion in tax breaks and subsidies.

At the same time, it extends the issue into an election year, giving Democrats less incentive to reach a compromise and more incentive to use the debate to highlight differences between Democratic and Republican approaches to energy policy.

Senate Democrats are pushing for a bill that, unlike Bush's, tilts more toward conservation than energy production, does not permit drilling in the Arctic refuge and calls for higher miles-per-gallon standards for sport-utility vehicles.

In August, the House passed an energy bill that closely resembled Bush's vision; reconciling the House and Senate plans may now prove difficult.

GOP lawmakers were furious Tuesday about the delay, contending that energy policy is an issue of national security made more imperative by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recent rise in tensions between the United States and Iraq.

"Next year is not soon enough for energy," argued Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), perhaps the Senate's most dogged advocate for drilling in the Alaskan refuge.

Citing Bush's criticism this week of Iraq for its refusal to admit weapon inspectors, Murkowski said: "If Baghdad is our next target after Kandahar, what's going to happen to that oil?"

Doug Hattaway, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), countered that "the Republican energy proposal has nothing to do with national security."

"Everyone knows we won't get a drop of oil out of Alaska for 10 years and it won't last more than a few days," he added.

Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said he would ask Bush to become more involved in pressing Congress to act quickly on the bill. Environmentalists, industry representatives and Republican political analysts all remarked that Daschle appears to be calling the shots on energy policy.

"You're seeing Daschle line up the political plays he wants to make next spring and summer to set his party up for the midterm elections," said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist. "Bush's challenge is to continue to be engaged with domestic issues, starting with the economy, and secondary issues, like an energy policy, to show that he can govern."

But prospects for the president's energy plan are eroding because California's energy crisis, fresh in lawmakers' minds when the House adopted its bill, has passed, and a nationwide energy crisis never materialized.

"Barring another crisis, it's going to be very difficult for the administration to revive the issue and overcome the environmental obstacles," said Marshall Wittmann, a political scholar at the conservative Hudson Institute.

Short of a crisis, pushing for hefty federal funding and tax breaks for energy companies looks to people "like the administration is just helping out their wealthy supporters," said Wittmann.

"It's an ironic moment where the Republicans' political agenda is losing steam as their leader is in the stratosphere." he added.

At this point, time clearly appears to be on the Democrats' side. Supporters of the Bush plan hoped that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the president's popularity, and instability in the Persian Gulf, particularly the increased tensions between the United States and oil-producing Iraq, would all work to their favor.

But Daschle's maneuvering after the terrorist attacks prevented a debate on the matter when emotions were at their highest, and efforts by Republicans to force votes on the House energy bill during debates on unrelated issues were voted down handily.

Early last month, Daschle took the energy legislation from the Senate Energy Committee, which looked likely to include a provision to allow drilling in the Alaskan wildlife reserve, and declared that he would manage the drafting himself. This has given him the flexibility to develop a package that Democrats can gather around.

"It gave Daschle time to put together his legislation and build a consensus around the package, which the Democrats didn't have before," said Alden Meyer, an energy specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Daschle plan, which has not yet been unveiled, will focus on achieving energy security by reducing demand rather than increasing drilling. For example, it is expected to set a requirement that a certain percentage of the country's electricity be generated by renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and include tax incentives for consumers to purchase hybrid automobiles, which use much less gasoline.

The Daschle plan is also expected to include provisions, which are not included in the Bush plan, to try to restrict the nation's swelling emissions of carbon dioxide and other products that contribute to global warming.

The House has also approved another piece of Bush's energy agenda, extending a law that limits to $9.5 billion the amount of damages that the nuclear power industry must pay in the event of an accident.

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