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Energy Bill Likely to Have Smooth Path in Senate

With the summer heat bringing more attention to rising gas prices and other energy issues, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans to bring a sweeping energy bill to the floor as early as next Monday.

Despite being among President Bush’s highest priorities since he took office in 2001, various energy bills have been stymied in the Senate because of both partisan and regional disputes.

Still, both Republicans and Democrats predict that the initial floor debate over this year’s energy bill will go much more smoothly than in the past.

“While there will obviously be some debates and some controversies, it should get through without a lot of difficulty,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), an ardent supporter of creating a national energy policy along the lines of what Bush is seeking.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he did not expect any major problems, although he predicted debate would last “a couple of weeks.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and ranking member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) “worked well together to bring up a bill that has bipartisan support,” Reid said.

Domenici said that he, too, believed debate on the measure would take about two weeks and that he has a commitment from Frist not to interrupt debate on the bill with other legislative measures.

However, Frist’s office has said the majority leader may decide to revisit the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations next week, if it can’t be done this week. That could delay or briefly sideline the energy bill. Democrats have acted to delay the Bolton nomination.

To smooth its passage, Domenici omitted two major issues — liability protection for a gasoline additive known as MTBE and the opening of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas exploration. Both issues have snagged energy bills in the past.

While the House included an MTBE liability waiver in their energy bill, Domenici has said he is looking to find a compromise that can satisfy Northeastern Republicans who helped Democrats filibuster the energy bill in 2003. The issue will likely be one of the most contentious issues that House and Senate conferees will have to deal with.

Meanwhile, ANWR drilling provisions are expected to be included in a separate budget-reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered.

Still, amendments from both Republicans and Democrats will likely be numerous.

“The biggest fights are going to be over things that are not in the bill,” Domenici said, citing issues such as vehicle fuel economy and global warming.

For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others may offer an amendment designed to force car manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he needed to sit down with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to discuss how to re-offer an amendment to address air pollution and global climate change.

Another flash point could come when Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) offers an amendment to provide her state and others that allow off-shore oil drilling more of the royalties that oil companies currently pay into the federal treasury.

“There will definitely be an amendment, but what it looks like and how it’s drafted is what we’re talking about now,” said Landrieu.

Landrieu has said Louisiana and other states need additional funding to help them restore their coastlines, which are eroding partly because of the drilling activity.

However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), among others, is expected to vigorously oppose the Landrieu amendment because he believes it could threaten a moratorium that Florida has set on off-shore drilling.

Even though the MTBE language was not included in the Senate bill this year, Northeastern Republicans may still not be satisfied with the measure, given that its provisions are oriented more toward the South and the West.

“There are few things to like and a lot of things to dislike,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.). Sununu, who opposed the bill in 2003 largely because of the MTBE language, said he has not made a decision whether to support the latest version of the legislation. But he will likely offer an amendment or two on the floor.

“I’ll at least make an effort to improve the legislation,” he said, declining to go into specifics about what his amendments might address.

Domenici said he expects Democratic amendments that would force utility companies to use more renewable energy sources to generate power.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee will mark up an $11 billion energy tax title next week that Domenici said would be added to the bill as an amendment. Its inclusion, depending on what type of tax credits it would extend to energy producers, also could foment controversy on the Senate floor, Lott said.

The underlying bill touches on almost every aspect of energy consumption, including encouraging more fossil fuel production, promoting more renewable fuel production and requiring improvements to be made to the nation’s electricity grid.

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