Congress Reacts Sluggishly to Bush's Energy Proposals

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than a month after the White House unveiled its national energy plan with great fanfare, President Bush's proposals are languishing on Capitol Hill, casting doubt on whether Congress has the political will to pass the kind of sweeping redirection of policy that Bush is seeking.

Several powerful trends are contributing to the impasse: Gasoline prices are moderating across the country. So far, there have been no summer power outages in California. Members of Bush's own party are obstructing efforts to expand oil and gas drilling. And polls suggest the public isn't really sure if the country faces a true energy crisis.

Fearful that one of its signature policy initiatives has been all but unplugged, the administration fought back Thursday by launching a new public relations offensive.

Leaders of both parties still promise passage of energy legislation later this year, but it seems increasingly likely to be far less sweeping than the bold action sought by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Many Republicans, for example, have broken ranks with the White House on oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week, the House voted to ban drilling off the Florida coast and in national monuments. And Thursday, a sizable contingent of House Republicans teamed with Democrats to ban drilling under the Great Lakes.

"We're worried about it," acknowledged Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). "Those votes were disturbing."

"Of course, we're discouraged," added Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats aren't getting their way either. Their proposals to impose rigid price caps on electricity in the West are going nowhere in the House, and Senate sponsors are holding off on pursuing the issue.

To be sure, probably nothing would help Bush's energy plan more than an ugly summer of blackouts in California to stoke the nation's sense of urgency about the problem. One reason political momentum has flagged, analysts say, is the perception that the crisis is abating in California and elsewhere.

"The urgency in California is starting to dissipate," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who supports much of the Bush plan but put the chances of passage of comprehensive energy legislation at no better than 50-50. "There's less of a rush" to act.

"The shoe isn't tight enough," said Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), who until recently was the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "The prices aren't high enough."

Noted Stephen Bell, chief of staff to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a senior member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: "The momentum behind a comprehensive energy package has seriously dissipated. The truth is, not many people have any idea what to do."

Bush sought to put the spotlight back on his plan Thursday by announcing $86 million in federal grants to encourage educational institutions and private firms to develop more efficient fuel technologies.

He also unveiled a variety of actions to curb energy use within the federal bureaucracy, including setting new standards for "vampire" electrical devices that drain energy even when not in use. These devices include many consumer products and household appliances.

Bush Cites Need for 'Wise Choices'

"Our nation must have a strategy, a broad, comprehensive energy strategy that calls upon the best of the nation's entrepreneurs to help us develop the technologies necessary to make wise choices in the marketplace as well as calls upon our nation's innovative technologies to help us find new sources of energy," he said.

Referring to California, Bush said he was "pleased to see" a new power plant come on line Wednesday in Kern County, calling it "the beginnings of what is a rational energy policy that will help the good people of California get out from underneath 10 years of neglect."

Congressional Republicans, many of whom are heading home today for a weeklong recess, have been armed with talking points, computer presentations and briefing papers to tout Republican energy plans at town hall meetings with constituents. White House strategists are meeting daily to plot strategy.

"The president has taken many steps to help people who are feeling the energy crunch right now," said Jim Wilkinson, a White House official involved in the effort. "It's up to us to make sure they know he's fighting for them."

That effort is driven, in part, by GOP concerns that Democrats have been promoting their solution to the West's electricity crisis--price controls--without an aggressive Republican rejoinder.

Democrats, especially in the House, continue to see political advantage in the issue. They believe that if energy woes intensify in California and around the country this summer, Republicans will bear the political blame if they are seen as doing nothing to remedy the problem.

On Wednesday, House Democrats began circulating a petition to force Republican leaders to bring price-control legislation to a vote. Congressional investigators, prodded by Democrats, are pressing Cheney to release records of private meetings held with special interests during drafting of the energy plan. If the documents are not provided, subpoenas could be issued.

The contrast with the way Congress considered Bush's tax cut is striking. Both issues were central to Bush's campaign for the presidency. After he became president, the House began work on his tax cut even before he submitted a formal plan. And the entire bill barreled through Congress in a mere four months.

But his energy initiative met with more ambivalence from the outset.

"It's not like taxes, where the Democrats knew they were in trouble on the issue," said David M. Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington-based coalition of business, consumer, government and environmental advocates. "Democrats are gleeful about picking a fight on energy."

Even as Cheney was unveiling the plan in mid-May, Republicans were expressing reservations about key elements. The proposal to expand energy exploration in the Arctic refuge was treated as dead on arrival. A proposal to empower federal authorities to condemn private property for new power lines met with immediate opposition, even from conservatives within Bush's own party.

Polls show widespread public concern about the environmental effects of the energy proposals.

"On offshore drilling, [tougher sport-utility vehicle fuel economy] standards, more emphasis on conservation, you see Republicans not all that different from Democrats," said Carroll Doherty, political analyst at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Meanwhile, action by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to restrain utility price hikes in California and the West has eased pressure on Congress to act.

The change of leadership in the Senate also has had a big effect. Republicans had planned to bring up an energy bill in June but lost control of the Senate after Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP and became an independent.

Democrats, instead, brought up legislation to expand patients' legal rights in dealing with health maintenance organizations.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he would move energy legislation in the "not too distant future." He didn't say exactly what would be in the bill but added that one thing certainly would not be: Bush's proposal to expand drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge.

Republicans plan to hammer Democrats during the July recess, arguing that they have relegated the nation's growing energy needs to the back burner.

In the House, where Republicans are still in the majority, leaders have asked committees that handle pieces of energy policy to draft their part of the legislation by mid-July, in hopes of bringing it to the floor before the August recess.

But it's not clear how far they can go in pushing Bush's proposals to increase energy production.

"What's striking is that even Republicans are unenthusiastic about the administration's energy plan," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, citing recent anti-drilling votes in the GOP-controlled House. "If you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere."

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who met with Bush at the White House on Thursday, said he hopes to draft a comprehensive bill that would put more emphasis on promoting conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. But he doubted it would be ready to move to the Senate floor until after the summer recess.

Both Parties' Bills May Be Combined

Efforts are underway to consolidate common features of Democratic and Republican energy bills into a package that could be acted upon quickly.

Such a measure would likely include provisions to promote conservation, offer tax credits for buying fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid cars, reduce the patchwork of gasoline recipes blamed for contributing to price spikes and supply shortages, boost energy assistance to low-income people, and extend a law limiting the liability of nuclear power plants in the event of an accident.

The administration also is moving ahead to implement a number of directives that can be carried out by executive order or through the actions of regulatory agencies, without requiring congressional approval.

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Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

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