Energy Bill Gives Way to Old One in the Senate

July 31, 2003, New York Times,

WASHINGTON, July 31 - Bogged down in an effort to pass a new energy bill, the Senate tonight hit on a novel solution: It took its energy bill from last year off the shelf and passed it again, throwing a fight over the nation's energy policy into negotiations with the House.

By re-approving the measure adopted on an 88-to-11 vote in April 2002, the chamber now controlled by Republicans gave its blessing to a measure written when Democrats were in power. That bill died when the House and Senate could not come to a final agreement, an outcome lawmakers hope to reverse this year. Tonight's vote on last year's, now this year's, measure was 84 to 14.

The unusual approach surfaced after consideration of a sweeping energy measure went badly off track, with Republicans and Democrats trading sharp accusations over delaying tactics and the handling of the Senate schedule by the majority leader, Bill Frist.

With the chamber in disarray, the Republican leadership was left groping for ways to salvage legislation it had hoped to complete before leaving for a monthlong break. Dr. Frist seized on the idea of passing last year's Democratic plan after Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, said that bill was a preferable alternative to the legislation on the floor.

"Let's do it, let's pass it today, and then we can move on," Dr. Frist urged his colleagues.
"You've got yourself a deal," answered Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat.

A handful of lawmakers from both parties were skeptical of the approach and resisted for a few hours. Senate aides and lobbyists following the measure said Vice President Dick Cheney was enlisted to line up support for legislation that has been an administration priority since President Bush took office.

After the Senate action, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, issued a statement praising the lawmakers for passing an energy bill, stating that the president "looks forward to working with the conferees."

A couple of side deals were cut to clear the way for a vote, after which both sides claimed they had outsmarted one another.
"In our fondest dreams, we never thought we could pass a Democratic bill in a Republican Congress," crowed Mr. Daschle.

Republicans were smiling as well, saying they will now overhaul the measure to their liking with their House counterparts. "We will write a completely different bill," said Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The energy measure adopted last year was less sweeping than the one senators hoped to move this week and does not contain many elements championed by Mr. Domenici, including new subsidies for the nuclear power industry. He promised to put those back. The measure did contain requirements for greater usage of corn-based ethanol as a fuel additive, a plan supported by farm-state lawmakers of both parties.

Both sides had their strategic reasons for agreeing to the plan. From the Democratic perspective, lawmakers calculated that some bill would pass eventually and that one written with Democratic backing last year was a better starting point than the emerging measure. Last year's bill, Democratic aides said, contained better consumer protections on utility issues, did more to promote renewable energy sources, had less onerous provisions on hydroelectric power and addressed climate-change issues when the developing Senate bill might have ignored that subject.

From the Republican vantage point, the agreement allowed them to meet their goal of passing energy legislation this week and put the final bill in the hands of a conference committee led by Mr. Domenici and Representative Billy Tauzin, Republican, of Louisiana, and a strong ally of the oil and gas industry. Last year, the legislation died when the conference committee led by Mr. Tauzin and Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico could not agree.

Perhaps most stunned by the development were conservation groups opposed to the Senate measure on the floor. They had hoped to either win significant changes in the bill or block its passage altogether. Gene Karpinski, head of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, called the deal a "travesty," adding, "It is an unprecedented move and unfortunately it is bad for the environment, clean air and consumers."

He and others following the measure said the abrupt conclusion of the debate allowed the Senate to duck floor fights over global warming and emissions controls among other items and left the final negotiations to Mr. Domenici and Mr. Tauzin. "That is Enron and Exxon negotiating with each other," said Adam Kolton, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation.



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