Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has been irking some generally stalwart GOP Senators with what they see as his willingness to sideline debate on the Senate’s energy bill for almost any other issue.
“I’ve been very openly frustrated by this strategy,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “I’ve been very direct at our policy lunches that we need to get on energy and stay on energy. … But I’m not winning.”
After kicking off the floor debate over energy policy on May 6, the Senate moved off the bill for nearly three weeks. Frist brought it back for the bulk of the last two weeks, but has moved it aside again to deal with what he hopes will be a two-week debate on a measure to create a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
Frist said the energy bill “is a major priority for us,” but he justified his decision to push it aside by noting that he promised three months ago to start on prescription drugs in mid-June. He also said he’s been frustrated by the differing estimates he has gotten about how much floor time the bill needs.
“Even right now, when I say ‘How long is it going to take on energy,’ some people say it’ll take six weeks, some people four weeks or two weeks,” Frist said. “It is really impossible to address energy right now and address other objectives like Medicare.”
Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) agreed that the prescription drug bill is the chamber’s highest priority, but acknowledged that stopping and starting on energy was not necessarily helpful.
“Ideally, we would not go on and off it,” he said, though he added, “it’s not as high a priority as Medicare.”
But Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members and others say the on-again, off-again debate makes it more difficult to argue that the energy measure, which would set the nation’s goals for energy production and conservation, is “must-pass” legislation.
“I think the energy bill is more important than anything else we have on the agenda right now,” said former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who has repeatedly argued that not having a coherent energy policy endangers national security. “I think we should complete it before we go to this Medicare prescription drug proposal.”
Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) agreed with Lott.
“A lot of us would like to stay on it and finish it,” he said. “It’s not my decision to go off of it. But I’m not criticizing the leader.”
Since the beginning of May, Frist has interrupted debate on the measure a total of five times with seven different measures since the Senate first took up what President Bush has described as one of his top five domestic priorities.
“It’s difficult to get people geared up for it if it’s interspersed with a lot of other stuff,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “What you lose is the momentum to move forward the longer you delay.”
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said he worries that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are trying to use the prolonged debate to their advantage.
“They keep hoping if [they] delay it long enough, ‘I can get a better deal out of Domenici,’” he said.
Domenici, who has been openly frustrated by the way the bill has been pushed aside, credited some colleagues — such as Craig, Nickles and Murkowski — with keeping the pressure on Frist to finish the bill.
“They’re all very helpful. They want to see this get done, and they keep pushing for it,” said Domenici, who noted that he finally secured a promise from Frist to finish the energy bill after the latest two-week hiatus for Medicare.
“The leader’s not going to let this fall by the wayside. I was very pleased today that he acknowledged we’re next,” Domenici said on Thursday. “We go right up as soon as we get back from the [July Fourth] recess.”
Domenici also expressed optimism that he would be able to finish the energy bill in July, because he succeeded last week in getting colleagues on both sides of the aisle to finalize their amendment lists — a feat he said will allow him to more easily manage the bill on the floor.
In the aggressive schedule Frist set for the Senate at the beginning of April, he had blocked off two weeks, originally planned to start on May 12, for the energy debate.
Though Frist started the energy bill a week earlier, he allowed only one day of debate before turning for two days to a NATO expansion treaty. While the Senate also spent time on the bill May 9, Frist turned the Senate’s attention on May 12 to the president’s tax cut.
In the two-week period Frist originally set aside for the energy measure, the Senate spent only one day debating the bill with no votes on amendments. But even on that day, May 13, the energy bill was used as filler because the GOP leadership encountered a procedural snafu with the tax bill they introduced on the floor.
Following passage of the tax cut, the Senate considered the Defense Department authorization measure, an AIDS bill and the tax cut conference report, before leaving May 23 for the Memorial Day recess.
Frist again sidelined the measure last Thursday in order to begin debate on the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill, a decision Murkowski said confounded her.
“That’s something I think we can take up whenever,” she said.