Bush’s Push for Energy

President Expected To Provide a Boost For Stalled Initiative

Posted January 16, 2004 at 5:13pm

Rejecting pressure from fiscal conservatives, President Bush plans to call on Congress today to approve a comprehensive energy bill stalled on Capitol Hill — even though Republicans privately believe the legislation has little chance of winning approval this year.

In a decision based on politics as much as policy, Bush is expected to devote a portion of tonight’s State of the Union speech to urge lawmakers to set aside their differences and enact the wide-ranging energy bill.

On Capitol Hill, Bush’s newfound commitment buoyed the bill’s champions.

“We had made it very clear to the White House that we are not going to get the energy bill done without a big push from the president,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Republicans are working to set aside time in late February for a second attempt at approval of the bill, which would boost U.S. energy supplies of nuclear power, oil, natural gas and renewable energy.

But there is just a slim chance the bill will pass. The legislation was scuttled in the Senate last year after it came under fire from liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike.

Democrats from New England to California charged that the bill was a giveaway to Bush campaign contributors in the energy sector, while fiscal conservatives were unnerved by its bloated $30 billion price tag.

Still, tonight’s push for the energy bill could help Bush politically. If gasoline prices peak this summer, Bush can claim that he pushed for legislation to ease prices at the pump.

Meanwhile, Bush can try to blame Democrats — particularly Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) — for killing the bill.

Daschle, who voted for the bill, faces a tough re-election race against former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.). GOP campaign strategists hope to hold the Democratic leader accountable for the demise of the bill, charging that he failed to deliver on the legislation that includes provision that would triple the use of gasoline produced from ethanol — a boon to South Dakota farmers.

Daschle, however, is already counterattacking by laying the groundwork for blaming Republicans for the legislation’s potential failure.

The Minority Leader told reporters Friday that he could deliver as many as a half-dozen more votes for the energy bill if Republicans drop divisive provision that would provide liability protections for producers of the fuel-additive MTBE.

“I believe the ball is in their court,” Daschle said.

Bush’s decision to press for the energy bill comes as somewhat of a surprise.

As late as last week, Bush appeared to be bowing to pressure from budget hawks in his administration who argued that the $30 billion bill would only add to the escalating deficit.

“Some of his advisers had been concerned about the cost of the bill,” said Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Despite the concerns among White House advisers, Bush and Vice President Cheney apparently never wavered in their support for the legislation, according to Republican sources.

Meanwhile, members of the Congressional Republican leadership, led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), pressured White House advisers to reverse course and support the legislation.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans hope the need for the legislation will be underscored by an upcoming annual energy forecast by the nonpartisan Energy Information Agency, which predicts that the United States will import 70 percent of its oil by 2025.

To drum up support for the bill, Domenici plans to hold a series of committee hearings on the report once it is released.

Domenici also announced last week that he has corralled enough Senators to break a filibuster on the legislation.

But as soon as the Republican and Democratic leaders reached the 60-vote threshold, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a one-time bill supporter, said that he now planned to vote “nay” in the next round.

If the bill “comes back up in the form that it was in before, I won’t support” the bill, Ensign said.