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Domenici: Once Sagging, Now Back in Form

During the summer and fall of 2003, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) wasn’t feeling so hot.

The septuagenarian, whose responsibilities included shepherding an energy-policy bill through the Senate, was coping with severe arthritic pain in his back and a chronic condition in his right shoulder that made it difficult for him to walk or stand for more than few minutes. He was understandably crabby — or worse — and he sometimes had to use a cane or a motorized chair to get around the Capitol.

At the time, Hill staffers and reporters whispered that Domenici’s health problems could force him to retire before the end of his current term in 2008.

But flash forward to October 2004 and one finds a very different Domenici. The 72-year-old Senator is walking tall, cutting press interviews short so he can go to the Senate gym and embarking on a book tour for his new tome, “A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy.” He’s even talking about the possibility of running for a seventh term, when he’s 76.

“Don’t you think I’m better?” Domenici asked in a recent interview.

“This thing ain’t cured,” he said of the neuropathy in his shoulder. But his pain doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was about to try something new: using electricity to disrupt the constant pain in his arm.

Of course, many people speculate that the New Mexico Republican might not even have stayed this long in the Senate if Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), himself a doctor, had not suggested that Domenici visit a fellow Tennessee physician and try a new pain medication in 2003.

That, Domenici’s spokeswoman Marnie Funk said, has made all the difference.

“A year and a half ago, he was in a lot more pain than he is today,” Funk said.

His sunnier attitude has produced something else: a renewed zest for life as a Senator.

Before he retires, Domenici wants to write two more books — his memoir, and a book on how the Budget Act has changed the Senate. Of these, the former Senate Budget chairman wants to start writing the budget book first.

“It would be a tremendous explanation for those who wonder why so many strange pieces of legislation pass,” said Domenici of how the Budget Act has made it easier in some ways to pass tax cuts and changes to entitlement programs.

In the meantime, he’s also begun to focus again on a comprehensive energy policy bill that could pass in the upcoming 109th Congress.

Though an energy bill has been repeatedly stalled, Domenici said that this time around, he would start early to negotiate with the House over the sticky issue of the gasoline additive known as MTBE. The House-Senate conference report included language that would have given the makers of MTBE, a known water pollutant, immunity from some lawsuits.

It was opposition to that language that principally caused seven Republicans to join 32 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent to filibuster the energy bill in the fall of 2003. Domenici tried to appease some of his detractors by subsequently introducing a revised energy bill in early 2004 that did not contain the MTBE language.

However, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) continued to demand that the MTBE provision be included in any energy bill that goes to the president’s desk.

“If we knew what we know now … we would have started early on in terms of trying to work out an acceptable MTBE solution,” said Domenici. Indeed, it was not until late September and early October 2004 that “we finally sat around the table and really talked seriously with the House leadership about MTBE,” Domenici said.

Domenici also predicted that high gas prices will keep the heat on Congress to pass controversial energy plans in the 109th.

“This Senate and this House cannot afford to not vote on this and on some other issues that have been laying around dormant,” he said, referring to drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expansion of offshore drilling, and inventorying reserves of offshore natural gas.

In addition to the energy bill, Domenici said he hopes his book on nuclear energy rattles some cages and changes a few minds about the hot-button issue.

“This book is just a step — a part of my effort which is multifaceted — to promote what I absolutely believe is the best energy source for the future of our country, the future of the world and for the environment, and for those who truly believe that greenhouse gases are truly a major problem of the world and its people,” he said.

Domenici, who has repeatedly tried to include tax credits and other goodies for the nuclear-power industry in bills, said he is distressed that the nuclear-power debate now revolves more around how to get rid of its waste, which stays harmfully radioactive for thousands of years, than around what he says are its benefits, including low air pollution.

Domenici said detractors who worry about the consequences of burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev. — or elsewhere in the United States — are not following the advancing frontiers of the technology, which he predicted one day would enable nuclear waste to be converted into a less harmful substance.

People “who don’t believe that there should be any radiation anywhere” are shortsighted, Domenici said. “Those people who think that don’t know that every day in every hospital people are being cured and treated by radiation — being cured, not killed — and that scientists aren’t afraid of radiation. The problem is, if you’re negligent and you expose yourself to too much, it’s bad, but you can prevent that.”

Of course, environmental activists complain that promoting nuclear energy is just an outgrowth of Domenici’s strategy of trying to help the Los Alamos and Sandia nuclear weapons labs in his state.

Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst at Greenpeace, said Domenici’s push for an expansion of nuclear energy technology could pose a national security risk, if the technology is given to unstable regimes.

“Only the blind and the biased think this is a good idea,” said Riccio. “We’re in the process of trying to put the genie back in the bottle. … You can’t be spreading [nuclear energy technology] around without expecting people to turn it into bombs.”

Domenici also said he is still committed to pushing a bill to force health insurers to treat mental health claims the same as physical health conditions, and he blames House Republican leaders for letting it languish.

The issue has been a top priority for Domenici, primarily because one of his daughters suffers from schizophrenia.

Though he’s anxious to get the bill passed, Domenici said he is waiting for the right political moment to push for action.

Interest groups that support the bill “are ready, but I have just tried to wait for the right time. You know, when you really can’t see daylight out there, you don’t want to tell these thousands of people to climb the hill,” explained Domenici. “But we’ll get them en masse.”

With all that on his plate and doubtless more to come, Domenici cautioned that he should not be counted out so easily, noting he’s still having a grand old time being a Senator.

“You can tell, I love what I’m doing,” he said.

If Domenici’s improved health now assures that he won’t be leaving the Senate before his term is up, the jury is still out on whether Domenici will make another go of it in 2008.

“Some mornings I wake up feeling terrible. Some mornings I wake up feeling great. Now, how’s that going to affect my decision [to run again]? Just let time tell,” he said.

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