Senate Won't Act Now on Energy Bill

Times Staff Writer

Senate Republican leaders Monday declared the massive energy bill dead for this year's session of Congress after they failed to round up the two additional votes they needed to cut off debate and bring the legislation to a vote.

Along with the legislation revising and expanding Medicare, the energy bill -- a brew of government subsidies, rules changes and other incentives to step up energy production and conservation -- was one of President Bush's top domestic priorities in the 2003 session of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced Monday night that the Senate would vote this morning on Medicare, but not on the energy bill, before recessing for the year.

Congress could consider the bill in 2004, but political experts said that its chances of passage could become more difficult in an election year.

The first overhaul of energy policy in a decade, which Bush has called critical to job growth and national security, includes measures designed to strengthen the nation's electric grid and diversify fuel sources in response to the 2000-01 California electricity crisis, this summer's Northeast blackout and high gasoline prices.

Although a number of the measures, such as mandatory rules for use of the national grid, enjoyed broad support, others, such as the proposed $25.7 billion in tax breaks over 10 years to promote energy production and conservation, drew opposition.

Also under fire was a provision to limit the liability of producers of methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, a gasoline additive blamed for contaminating water supplies from California to New Hampshire.

The legislation was approved last week by the House. But in the Senate, it fell two votes short of the 60 needed to shut down debate.

Scrambling Monday to round up those votes, Senate Republican leaders and White House officials proposed stripping the bill of its controversial provision to shield MTBE producers from liability for groundwater contamination.

Several of the bill's opponents, including Republican senators from New Hampshire and Democratic senators from California and New York, objected to that provision, saying it would shift the cost of cleaning up polluted water supplies in their states to the taxpayers.

But it wasn't clear that removing the provision about MTBE, which helps reduce smog by enabling gasoline to burn more cleanly, would put the bill over the top.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose state is home to two of the nation's largest MTBE manufacturers, insisted that the provision remain.

Opinion varied on whether the delay would doom the bill.

Monte Shaw, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Assn., a trade association of ethanol producers, said: "If they don't get the bill done now, the bill doesn't happen, period."

Not only would next year's elections heighten mistrust and tensions between the two parties, he said, but the temporary alliances that formed around the energy bill would become increasingly strained.

"I don't think those alliances will survive until January," Shaw said. "There's just too much time for people to want additional tweaks here and there. I don't think in January you could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

"They'll spend a lot of time talking about it next year," he said. "But it will never pass next year."

But Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Assn., said he was hopeful that the bill's provision to double the amount of corn-based ethanol added to the nation's gasoline supply -- a popular measure among farm-state lawmakers -- would continue to serve as a strong inducement to pass the bill.

"There are tens of thousands of farmers across the Midwest who are very committed to getting this done," he said. "We're not going to stop until we do so."

The bill could still be passed in January, Doggett said. But, he acknowledged, "every week that goes by makes it more difficult."

Some analysts said the delay would give congressional leaders more time to work out a compromise.

"With politically popular initiatives like ethanol and electricity as drivers, the energy bill can happen despite the trappings of election-year politicking," said Frank Maisano, who represents MTBE producers.

Phil Sharp, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who serves on a national commission studying energy policy, said he believes that the Republicans who control Congress will want to deliver on one of Bush's legislative priorities.

"I just think there's too much [at stake] for the president's reputation, for the Republican Congress, not to complete something," he said, adding that lawmakers are still under pressure to follow through on their promise to strengthen the electric grid after the Northeast blackout. They would face political trouble if another blackout hit and they had failed to act, he said.

But Sharp noted that Republicans would need to work more closely with Democrats in crafting a final bill when they return in January. Tensions were heightened this year when GOP leaders shut out Democrats from negotiations as the bill was being drafted.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, welcomed the delay. Environmental groups had objected to the bill, contending that it was tilted too much toward more production over conservation and that it rolled back environmental protections.

"The challenge we all faced in this bill was that the longer it was out in the public, the more the stench would rise," Pope said.

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