Frist Under Fire Over Energy Bill

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:08pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has again run afoul of Senate GOP conservatives for failing to keep his promise that this week would be devoted solely to debate on the energy bill.

Though most Republicans are publicly blaming Democratic “obstructionism” for the sputtering energy debate, many GOP Senators privately acknowledged that Frist’s decision to pepper this week’s schedule with unrelated votes on controversial judicial nominees has made it less likely the Senate will pass the energy bill before the August recess.

“It might have been a better strategy not to have brought [judges] up,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “I think it was a mistake.”

Frist denied that he has been hampering the energy debate and said Democrats were to blame.

“People understand that Democrats are slow-walking it,” Frist said. “I’m not asking for any [debate] time on these judges. Democrats are asking for all the time.”

Sen. Larry Craig (Idaho), who is one of many GOP conservatives who have complained about Frist’s unwillingness to push the energy bill to Senate passage, said the Majority Leader could have avoided the time issue on judges by not bringing them up at all.

“It was unwise,” said Craig, former chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.

“I’ve been in the leadership — never at [Frist’s] level — but I clearly realize the pressures put on you to do other things in the run-up to a recess,” added Craig. “I’ve also been involved in tough floor debates before, and once you get on them, you stay on them, and you drive it until you finish it.”

Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) agreed: “I wish we hadn’t gone off of it, frankly.”

So far this year, the Senate has spent a total of 12 legislative days on the energy measure. However, those debate days have been spread out over the past three months, causing Craig and others to complain that the on-again, off-again schedule has prevented the bill from gaining the momentum to pass.

Since the Senate resumed debate Friday, Frist has interrupted the energy debate for two partisan battles over Democratic filibusters of U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit nominee Miguel Estrada and 5th Circuit nominee Priscilla Owen.

Frist also on Wednesday attempted to move to a six-hour debate on two international trade agreements. But Energy and Natural Resources Committee members protested, and Frist allowed the Senate to resume debate on the energy bill, saying he would take up the trade measures later.

If it becomes clear that the Senate cannot complete the bill this week — even if Frist makes good on his threat to keep the Senate in session on Saturday and Sunday — Thomas said energy bill proponents may have to seek another agreement with Frist to bring the measure back up when the Senate returns in September.

But some GOP leaders indicated last week that if the bill does not pass before the August recess, it may be dead for the year.

To assuage their critics, Frist and other Senate GOP leaders have been flirting with the notion of filing a motion to limit debate on the energy bill, but they first have to offer a package of tax credits to prevent the package from being ruled out of order. That will only take up more time on the Senate floor.

Though Democrats have slowed down consideration of the bill by objecting to GOP attempts to quickly move on a slew of pending amendments, they also have complained about what they say are unnecessary interruptions.

“It makes it difficult, as somebody helping to move this [bill] along, to have the stops and starts,” Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Frist on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Votes [on judges] are not going to change. And we take an hour of debate on them, and we get off the energy bill, and then we have to get people here again [to debate energy]. And it makes it extremely, extremely difficult.”

Frist has scheduled another judicial vote for today. Because the contentious nomination of William Pryor to be an 11th Circuit judge has not yet been debated on the floor, Reid told Frist on Wednesday that Democrats would want more than the one-hour debate time designated for Estrada and Owen — a situation that is likely to further delay the energy bill.