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Reviving 2002 Energy Measure Foils Senate Logjam

Tactic may help the GOP tailor an overhaul of national policy that the president favors.

August 01, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday found an unusual way to overcome differences that have stymied the passage of energy legislation: It went back to the bill passed last year and passed it again.

The surprise action moved Congress a significant step closer to final agreement on a White House priority -- the first overhaul of the nation's energy policy in a decade. President Bush has pressed Congress to send him a bill, calling it vital to economic growth and national security.

The Senate vote cleared the way for negotiations on a compromise measure with the House, which passed its version of an energy bill in April.

"In our fondest dreams, we never thought we'd be able to pass a Democratic bill in a Republican Congress," said Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who, as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, spent months drafting a bill, only to see it scrapped, said, "I guess you wonder why I'm smiling."

"I'll be rewriting [the] bill," he said, noting that he will preside over the negotiations. "We're in the majority. We'll write a completely different bill [with] a lot more production ... a lot more nuclear and other kinds of energy."

Energy legislation died last year when the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate came to loggerheads. But this year, both chambers are dominated by Republicans, who are eager to deliver on one of Bush's domestic priorities.

Balanced Policy Sought

"The president looks forward to working with the [House-Senate] conferees to ensure that we enact a balanced and comprehensive energy policy this year," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement Thursday night.

As an inducement to many senators to act, a final bill is virtually certain to include a measure, popular in farm states, to double the amount of corn-based ethanol added to the nation's gasoline supply.

The decision by the Senate's Republican majority to toss out a GOP-drafted bill and substitute a measure approved when the chamber was under Democratic control came as a surprise. But it broke a partisan impasse that, with the Senate poised to recess for the summer, threatened to carry the energy debate over until fall and possibly jeopardize passage of the bill.

The bill was approved 84 to 14. Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California were among the 11 members of their party who joined three Republicans in voting against it. Two Democratic candidates, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, did not vote.

The decision to pass last year's bill again was the result of a deal brokered on the Senate floor by Daschle and his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

Responding to GOP accusations that Democrats were slowing the energy debate -- which on Thursday was in its 18th day -- Daschle told Frist: "If our Republican colleagues really wanted to get a bill, what would have been wrong with taking a bill that 88 of us voted for last year?"

Frist responded: "Let's do it."

Minority Whip Harry Reid of Nevada later told Frist, "You've got yourself a deal."

Republicans met privately and, with the blessing of the White House, accepted the offer.

Last year's nearly 1,000-page Senate bill includes many of the same provisions as the bill drafted this year. It would provide federal loan guarantees to spur construction of a $20-billion pipeline to carry Alaska natural gas to the Lower 48 states. It would offer close to $15 billion in tax incentives, roughly evenly divided between conservation and production measures. And it would extend a cap on the nuclear industry's liability in accidents, a provision designed to remove an obstacle to expansion of nuclear power.

But last year's bill also does not include a number of provisions that were part of the scrapped GOP-drafted bill. Among these: federal loan guarantees to spur building of more nuclear power plants, Bush's $1-billion-plus plan to speed up the development of cars that run on pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells, and an inventory of offshore oil and natural gas reserves.

Domenici is expected to add many of those provisions to the bill during negotiations with the House.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate measure eschews Bush's goal of opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. That provision is not likely to be in a final bill.

Neither bill includes tougher vehicle miles-per-gallon standards sought by environmentalists.

Lawmakers from both parties saw benefits to pulling last year's bill off the shelf.

"The Democrats didn't want to be accused of obstructionism," said Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi. "And the Republicans want a result."

Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota added, "If the best we can do is pass last year's bill, let's do it."

Daschle Happy With Bill

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