House Approves Utility Aid for Needy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In its first direct legislative response to the nation's burgeoning energy crisis, the House on Wednesday approved legislation that would provide an additional $300 million to help low-income families pay their power bills.

The bill amounts to a midyear increase of 21% for the $1.4-billion energy assistance program--twice as much as President Bush had proposed adding to help the poor cope with increases in utility bills.

Before final action on the bill, House Republican leaders blocked Democratic efforts to force votes on a broader response to the energy crisis in the West: strict energy price caps that reach beyond the restraints imposed Monday by federal regulators.

Republicans argued that price caps would not solve California's energy problem, while Democrats accused the GOP of being cavalier about the crisis faced by consumers.

"This says to the people of the West, 'Your emergency doesn't count to us,' " said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

But such assertions were countered by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who said: "Members should reject the siren song of price caps and remember this: Government price controls will mean more blackouts."

The issue erupted during debate on a $6.5-billion midyear appropriation bill to cover unanticipated costs and emergency expenditures, including $5.5 billion for the Defense Department and $116 million to help the Internal Revenue Service pay the cost of sending out rebate checks authorized by the recently enacted tax cut law.

The measure passed, 341 to 87.

In an earlier vote, Bush barely escaped an embarrassing slap when Democrats moved to cut the proposed IRS increase by $29 million--the cost of a letter the agency is sending to tell taxpayer of their impending tax rebate.

Democrats complained that the letter, which prominently mentions Bush, reads like a piece of campaign literature. Republicans said it was needed to save people from calling the IRS about their checks. The amendment failed, 216 to 212.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats are considering an even bigger increase in energy aid for the poor.

Overall, the House bill would provide the $6.5 billion requested by Bush. But it would change some spending priorities. For instance, Bush's Office of Management and Budget objects strongly to provisions that would rescind $389 million in money appropriated for the Federal Emergency Management Agency--just as the disaster relief agency is facing big outlays to cope with damage caused by Tropical Storm Allison.

That provision to rescind the money came under attack from Democrats and Republicans, posing the debate's most serious challenge to the bill. But an effort to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee and restore the money was defeated on a party line vote of 218 to 209.

The energy aid for the poor is provided through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps the poor and elderly pay heating and air-conditioning bills. In California, a family of four must earn less than $33,125 to be eligible, and the average benefit is $326 a year.

Although Republicans and Democrats have been divided over broad questions of energy policy, there has been a bipartisan consensus on more help for needy consumers. So, despite pressure to hold down the cost of the supplemental spending bill, House Republicans doubled Bush's request for $150 billion in additional energy aid. GOP leaders blocked, on procedural technicalities, Democratic amendments to increase the funding even more.

Republican leaders also fought efforts by Democrats to turn debate on the spending bill into Congress' first broad-gauged discussion on the nation's energy crisis. Democrats wanted to offer major energy amendments, including one to impose strict cost-based price caps on wholesale electricity in California--stricter price restraints than the policy announced Monday by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Proponents of the stricter caps, echoing complaints by California Gov. Gray Davis and others, said FERC's order did not go far enough to guarantee relief for consumers against blackouts, shortages and price gouging.

Republicans argued that price caps would be counterproductive and that California's problems will be solved only by increasing the energy supply.

Democrats lost a 222-205 procedural vote that blocked their amendments from coming to a vote.It was an important victory for Republican leaders who had feared mounting support for price caps even within their own party. However, momentum flagged this week after the FERC decision.

The House bill also includes:

* $45 million for a Defense Department plan to make military bases in California self-sufficient and get them off the state's power grid during shortages.

* $1.5 million for planning and environmental studies for a proposed upgrade in an electrical transmission line in Central California known as Path 15.

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