Leaders May Scale Back Energy Bill

Posted January 28, 2004 at 6:26pm

Senate GOP leaders have decided to pursue an aggressive strategy to pare down the energy bill in hopes of reviving the otherwise-dead legislation before the first of March.

The plan with the most immediate consequences involves attaching the scaled-back energy compromise to the $311 billion highway funding bill, which is due to hit the Senate floor on Monday.

Several GOP Senators confirmed that their leadership has mapped out four options for getting the mammoth energy bill passed through the chamber this year, and all the plans involve scrapping the $31 billion conference report and coming up with a much lighter measure, possibly one that looks more like the $18 billion plan the Senate originally envisioned last year.

“As I say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, ” said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been a key negotiator on tax portions of the energy bill.

Grassley and other Republican Senators acknowledge that the chances of passing the $31 billion version — which was attacked from the outset by Members of both parties for being a hodgepodge of pork projects for oil and gas producers — have become even more slim since Republicans began to take up the mantle of cutting federal spending in the coming year.

So the focus has shifted to not only rewriting the bill but also how to get it through a tightly divided Senate that fell two votes short of an attempt to break a bipartisan filibuster late last year.

Republicans say their decision to consider merging the energy and highway bills was prompted by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who has said he might offer an amendment to the highway bill that would incorporate energy-bill provisions encouraging the use of the corn-based fuel additive ethanol. The issue is a top priority for Daschle amid his tough re-election fight this year against former GOP Rep. John Thune.

“If they’re going to get into these tangents with other amendments, why not make it more comprehensive?” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said of Daschle’s ethanol plan.

But Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he did not favor the highway bill option because the measure funding transportation projects in all 50 states will already be difficult to pass given that it may break budget spending caps. Plus, Lott noted that neither Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) nor Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appears to support that option.

“It’s only one of four options, and I don’t think it’s the best one,” said Lott.

Still, Lott suggested that rather than trying to debate the energy measure as an amendment on the Senate floor, it could more easily be added during House-Senate conference negotiations on the highway bill, which sponsors hope to finish before the end of February when a temporary measure funding highway projects expires.

Among the other options Senate Republicans are considering is a resolution that would direct the House enrolling clerk to change the bill before sending it to the president’s desk, according to energy bill supporter Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). That would require the Senate to approve the original bill and a separate resolution.

Because conference reports are not amendable, a resolution is the only way to change it before it becomes law. The House has already passed the energy bill and would have to agree to the resolution as well.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who was cagey about which plan he believes is best, said of the enrolling clerk plan, “We’re trying to do something better than that.”

Because the House has been reluctant so far to agree to some of the changes proposed by the Senate, Senate GOP leaders may have to force the House to head back to conference committee on the bill. So the third option would entail bringing the conference report up for a Senate floor vote, defeating it and requesting another conference.

Under the fourth option, Frist would ask the principal Senators behind the original bill to draft another compromise bill that can garner the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster.

Still, all of the plans create potential hazards for bill backers, because much of the original $31 billion bill was filled with sweeteners designed to attract votes from the South, West and Midwest. Taking out any of the lucrative tax credits or other projects could once again jeopardize the measures’ passage.

“This bill is a leg bone connected to a thigh bone,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “So before getting into taking things out, we need to see if … it’s a useless organ like an appendix, or an essential organ like an eye.”

The aide noted that Frist has not settled on any of the plans, and that the Majority Leader is focused primarily on getting the bill passed through the Senate, before trying to negotiate any deals with the House.

Craig agreed that the process was just beginning.

“There will be four or five iterations of [the bill] before March 1st,” he said, adding that GOP Senators were likely to discuss all the options at their retreat in Philadelphia, which begins today.

Though Daschle has said the original bill would garner more than 60 votes if Republicans would simply take out a provision giving liability protection to the makers of another gasoline additive, MTBE, Senate Republicans are not yet ready to acquiesce on that point.

“There are lots of other little time bombs in this bill,” said the senior GOP aide. “Taking [MTBE] out is no guarantee of a successful conclusion on this bill.”

Even if they did remove it from the Senate version, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has said repeatedly that he will not allow an energy bill without the MTBE language to come to the House floor.