A Trio of Senators in Play for Republicans’ Energy Voice

Posted June 4, 2008 at 3:07pm

With the departure of two key Senators later this year, Senate Republicans will find themselves heading into the 111th Congress without a standard-bearer on energy — an issue likely to remain indefinitely at the top of the Congressional agenda because of concerns over global warming and high gas prices.

The retirements of Republican Sens. Pete Domenici (N.M.) and Larry Craig (Idaho), however, leave a bevy of GOP Senators waiting in the wings to make their mark on the energy portfolio. They include Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and George Voinovich (Ohio).

Domenici, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who for years has been the party’s leading Senate voice on energy, is retiring this year after six terms. Craig, a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works committees, is leaving amid the fallout from his arrest in an airport restroom last year.

While no clear frontrunner for the energy mantle has yet emerged, Domenici said recently that he’s noticed an uptick in interest on the issue among several GOP Senators who he predicted will evolve into pivotal energy legislators over time.

“I had to grow into it,” he said in an interview last month, noting that he fell into the energy niche only after a lengthy tenure on the Budget Committee.

Domenici’s interest in nuclear power led him to the energy panel and ultimately the chairman’s seat. His clout extends to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which he also chaired and now sits on as ranking member. The posts have served him well; New Mexico is home to some of the federal government’s largest nuclear weapons testing facilities.

Chief among the rising GOP energy stars is Alexander, who has already sought to elevate energy matters among his caucus since becoming Senate Republican Conference chairman last year.

[IMGCAP(1)] “He’s a leader in anything he takes on,” Domenici said of Alexander, who sat on the Energy panel in the 109th Congress. “He’s working on it and knows what he’s doing. He might be the leader.”

With his former energy committee assignment and current position on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Alexander is well-suited to shape the emerging debate on climate change and energy independence.

In a speech last month, Alexander called for a “Manhattan Project” to encourage the development of clean energy technologies that will ease global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

While Alexander in the past has sponsored legislation with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) to cap carbon dioxide — the main culprit in global warming — and other pollutants from power plants, he’s unlikely to support the economy-wide cap included in the Lieberman-

Warner Climate Security Act, on which debate started this week.

In an interview last month, Alexander said he was considering several amendments to the bill that reflect a preference in the GOP caucus for clean technologies that reduce oil use with the accompanying benefit of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“For myself, I favor a goal of clean energy independence, which along the way deals with climate change, rather than a goal of just climate change,” he said.

[IMGCAP(3)] Technological solutions to climate change are also favored by Voinovich, another GOP Senator poised to shape the party’s energy platform.

Voinovich, as the former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor, is well-versed in the federal Clean Air Act that governs electricity generation. He is leading efforts to craft a Republican counterproposal to the Lieberman-

Warner bill that would create incentives for new technologies.

His role on energy could expand in the 111th Congress should Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) win the presidency. That would clear the way for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) — the ranking member on the Environment panel — to assume the top GOP slot on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Inhofe’s ascension and Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) impending retirement would make Voinovich the most senior Republican on the Environment panel.

On the Energy panel, the retirements of Domenici and Craig, as well as the death last year of Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas (R), will allow several less senior Republicans on the panel room to legislate.

[IMGCAP(2)] Murkowski is poised to become the panel’s ranking member, giving her a forum to air concerns over the climate change that is already affecting her state. Murkowski this session co-sponsored a centrist cap-and-trade climate bill offered by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and she also has called for increased production of oil and gas, including drilling in her state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Domenici also has found an heir apparent for the nuclear portfolio in Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who recently called for legislation to promote the recycling of nuclear waste, a stumbling block to the industry’s expansion. “He’s really taken hold of the nuclear issue,” Domenici said of Sessions.

Domenici also hailed first-term Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is known to patiently remain at hearings to ask questions of witnesses long after other Senators have left.

“He’d be somebody to watch,” Domenici

said.