Revamped Energy Bill Up in the Air

Posted March 9, 2004 at 6:00pm

Senate Republicans along with the White House are putting increasing pressure on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) to drop their opposition to the Senate’s pared-back energy bill.

Both Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho), strong advocates of passing a national energy policy this year, said they have had conversations with the two powerful House Members in hopes of getting them to back down.

Both DeLay and Barton have repeatedly said they would not accept the Senate’s new energy bill without a liability waiver for the makers of the fuel additive MTBE.

“The White House has already [talked to them], and I have already,” said Lott, “but we’re going to have to do more.”

Lott added, “The president’s got to lean on them, and we’ve got to lean on them.”

Craig said he had been trying to convince DeLay and Barton to move separate legislation dealing with MTBE.

“We’re trying to sit down with the House and work out an MTBE compromise,” said Craig. “I don’t know that it can be done on the [energy] bill.”

But Larry Neal, spokesman for Barton, denied that the House Members are getting pressured at all.

“We’ve read a bit about what Senator Craig has said in the media, but have not heard directly from Senator Craig nor the White House,” said Neal. “I should add that Chairman Barton’s views [on MTBE] are unchanged.”

Indeed, the GOP Senators and the White House are still meeting stiff resistance from DeLay and Barton.

“We’re not going to be bullied by the opponents of an energy bill or reluctant Senators who’d rather do the politically expedient thing rather than the right thing,” said DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella. “I understand that folks want to play hot potato with this thing and pass off their work on someone else, but the bottom line is the House has already done its work on the this bill.”

Indeed, the House passed a $31 billion energy policy conference report last fall, but a coalition of Democrats and Northeastern Republicans filibustered the bill in the Senate.

With budget deficits rising and complaints that the original conference report was a giveaway to energy companies, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) brokered a scaled-back $14 billion bill earlier this year.

In the process, Domenici also eliminated a provision to protect MTBE makers from lawsuits alleging that they sold a product they knew was an environmental and health hazard.

The absent MTBE provision, however, is just one reason House leaders have resisted revisiting the issue. They say Senate leaders should find a way to overcome the original filibuster on the $31 billion bill.

“We’ve already negotiated this,” said Grella. Barton echoed that sentiment in comments last week.

Craig said he envisioned a compromise MTBE bill that would move separately from the energy measure. It might give MTBE makers future protection from lawsuits while possibly allowing current lawsuits, brought by the state of New Hampshire and private citizens from other New England states, to continue, he said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel, also suggested at an energy policy forum Tuesday morning that the MTBE fight should be moved to separate legislation.

“We shouldn’t let the liability question stop the entire bill,” he said.

Given Barton and DeLay’s continued reluctance to give in on the MTBE fight, Bingaman said Congress should instead move the energy bill in a piecemeal fashion.

Bingaman suggested that provisions dealing with increasing the electricity grid’s reliability and those encouraging energy efficiency move as separate legislation.

“To try to say that the only way to get there is through passage of comprehensive legislation is not realistic,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also said she might pursue a separate measure for her proposed Alaskan natural gas pipeline.

It is currently included in the Senate energy bill, but Murkowski said she feared the larger measure would not make it into law this year because of the stalemate between the House and Senate over MTBE.

“I don’t want to strip out the guts of the energy bill if the energy bill has a chance of passing,” Murkowski said. “If the energy bill doesn’t have a chance, then I will find a way to get the natural gas pipeline.”

Meanwhile, all of the efforts to resolve the MTBE fight could be for naught if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) declines to bring the new Senate compromise to the floor this year.

While Craig and Lott praised Frist for putting the bill on his list of priorities for the weeks from March 22 to April 9, Frist said he would not bring the bill up unless Democrats agreed to limit their amendments.

“We need to bring it up in a way that is expedited so it is not relitigated on the floor,” said Frist, who noted that various versions of the bill have had more floor time than any other issue in recent years.

But Bingaman indicated Tuesday that Democrats were still smarting from being cut out of negotiations on both versions of the energy bill.

“There are quite a few on the Democratic side that want to offer amendments, which could take some time on the floor,” he said.