Socket to Me

Posted August 29, 2003 at 5:33pm

When the lights went out across the Northeast on Aug. 14, plunging 50 million Americans into sweaty darkness, restructuring the nation’s electricity industry rocketed to the top of the long list of issues that Congress has promised to deal with this fall.

And lawmakers made a lot of promises before they left town for their August vacations. As they return to work this week, the question is whether GOP leaders can get their act together before Members gets antsy about adjourning and presidential politics overwhelms the chances for any bipartisan compromises.

While the prospects of at least passing an energy policy bill to deal with the electricity crisis improved during August, House and Senate negotiators, who begin preliminary talks this week, are likely to find that their optimistic prognostications about sending the measure to President Bush by the end of September may have been premature.

“The fact that no one can yet say with certainty what caused the blackout demonstrates how complicated some of this energy policy is — with electricity reform having been a multi-Congress struggle,” noted one senior GOP Senate aide.

Rather than waiting for answers, most Members appear to be falling back on the positions they held before New York, Ohio, Michigan and parts of Canada went dark, reinvigorating a long-running regional dispute over whether to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more authority over the nation’s power grids.

Case in point: Southern and Pacific Northwest lawmakers say they’re confident the conference report will include a deal they made with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) to postpone until 2007 regulations mandating federal oversight over the nation’s wholesale electricity market, because they fear electricity rates in their states could rise under a restructured market.

And even though the White House has reportedly signed off on that agreement, somebody forgot to check with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who supports electricity deregulation.

“We did not agree to the delay, and as a result, Chairman Tauzin feels no obligation to support it,” Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said last week.

Add to the mix the House GOP leadership’s desire to continue pushing for oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A GOP aide said House leaders are likely to fall back on their wildly successful tactic of arm-twisting when pushing for ANWR’s inclusion in the energy conference report. It’s a position that doesn’t quite take into account the fact that Domenici dropped the proposal from the Senate bill after failing several times to get even 50 votes, far less than the 60 needed to beat back a filibuster.

Predictably, Senate Democrats warned that the House Republican plan could backfire.

“ANWR is a poison pill. … It will be filibustered,” said Bill Wicker, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), ranking member on Energy and Natural Resources.

Plan B. Members will get back to work on the Medicare prescription drug conference this month, but the prognosis looks iffy given that even when Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) are hundreds of miles away from each other, they still find something to fight about.

The conference hit a snag during the last week of the recess when Grassley yanked his staff out of talks on the bill. The deep-rooted mistrust between the two Republicans bodes poorly for a Medicare bill already hampered by reluctant support from House GOP conservatives and lukewarm backing from Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Senate Republican aides acknowledge that for the bill to emerge from conference, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) are likely going to have to play referee between the two chairmen.

“This does underscore the fact that the … Senate leadership is going to have to be more aggressive in stepping in to get this bill done,” said a senior Senate GOP aide. “It’s something [Frist] is going to have to deal with when he gets back in town.”

And don’t be surprised if Frist and Hastert call in the big gun — Vice President Cheney. Remember that during the conference on Bush’s $350 billion tax cut earlier this year, Cheney was the only one who could smooth Grassley’s ruffled feathers after Thomas stormed out of the room.

Floor It. While the energy and Medicare talks will take place off-stage this week,

C-SPAN viewers can choose between Senate debate on the $464 billion fiscal 2004 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill or House action on the District of Columbia and Transportation, Treasury, Postal Service and general government spending bills.

In the Senate, Democrats are poised to pummel the GOP with a series of amendments designed to exploit their traditional edge on education and health care, as well as their belief that the administration is shortchanging both.

Right off the bat, Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) wants to test his colleagues’ commitment to Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act with an amendment to fully fund the measure at its authorized level of $18.5 billion — $6 billion more than is currently in the bill. A vote on that proposal could come as early as Wednesday, said a Democratic aide.

Sens. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) also will be testing Republican patience for increased education spending with several amendments of their own. Democrats have won similar votes in the past by pulling in enough support from moderate Republicans, such as Arlen Specter (Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS.

Specter could be interesting to watch during the debate as he chooses between programs he has traditionally supported and the desire to skew to the right in an attempt to diffuse criticism from conservatives who are backing his 2004 primary opponent, Rep. Pat Toomey.

Meanwhile, the House could have a fight over government contracts for corporate expatriates on the $89 billion Transportation-Treasury measure on Thursday, while school vouchers are bound to cause raised voices during debate on the D.C. spending bill Friday. Wednesday should feature ever-popular suspension calendar bills.