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It’s ‘Ping-Pong’ for Energy Bill

House and Senate Democratic leaders will once again circumvent the conference committee process as the majority aims to push energy legislation through Congress in the coming weeks, an increasingly common tactic that is drawing the ire of some rank-and-file lawmakers.

Following a Wednesday meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office, several Democrats confirmed that the House and Senate will revive the same method used to move a lobbying reform bill earlier this year as well as the recent children’s health insurance bill.

Rather than appoint conferees from each chamber to hash out differences in the approximately 1,100 pages of legislation, the House and Senate are expected to vote on identical bills without allowing amendments and then send the measure to President Bush.

“Obviously the Speaker and the chairmen would prefer that we conference this,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said Wednesday, acknowledging that the measure will instead be “ping-ponged,” as the process is sometimes referred to.

Although House Democrats had said they would like to complete work on the energy legislation before the end of the year, Democratic aides said no timeline has been set for the revised energy bill. Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) declined to be interviewed, referring all questions on the bill to the Speaker’s office.

A Pelosi aide said the Speaker told participants in the meeting Wednesday that the energy package remains a “a top priority.”

“The Speaker reiterated that she views the energy legislation as a top priority and her commitment to produce a strong final bill. Regrettably, it appears that Senate will not be able to move to a formal conference process as the Speaker prefers,” the aide said. “The Democratic leadership of the House and Senate will now work together to finalize this legislation.”

Among the significant differences the chambers must reconcile are mileage standards included in the Senate’s version of the bill and renewable energy requirements mandated in the House legislation.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to comment for this article.

The decision by Democratic leaders to repeatedly circumvent the traditional conference process prompted criticism from some Members on Wednesday, including Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D).

The New York lawmaker asserted that the House was “cut off at the knees” during negotiations on the recent children’s health insurance bill, which followed a similar track as the energy legislation is now expected to take.

“If we don’t go to conference, there’s no need for us to legislate on anything really,” Rangel said. He asserted that Senate Republicans have blocked the appointment of conferees in an effort to halt the conference process, effectively giving the Senate an upper hand to negotiate a bill rather than allow the bicameral Democratic majority to decide.

“What they’re doing is avoiding a conference … because in a conference, the House and the Senate majority controls,” Rangel said.

Many rank-and-file Democrats similarly expressed frustration with the lack of conference committees while putting blame squarely on Senate Republicans, but acknowledged that there is little that can be done in the House to fix the problem.

“Certainly a lot of us believe in the conference committee process,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.). “We need to get back to the point where we use conference committees … and have serious dialogue.”

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said: “As a Member of Congress, I’m concerned. Conference committees are the orderly way for us to work out differences.”

House Republicans also have criticized the repeated use of the “non-conference” method, asserting that the process prohibits any type of public scrutiny.

“It certainly ought to send a signal to the American people that openness is the exception rather than the rule,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Texan noted that the method also has effectively blocked Republicans from contributing to the final legislation. “You’re not heard if you’re not in the meeting,” he said.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) echoed that sentiment in a separate interview, stating: “They’re trying to find some way to bypass the traditional process.”

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called the Republican complaints about the lack of conference committees “bizarre” given that Republican Senators have been throwing up hurdles to naming conferees.

“It’s their fault. … People who block something from happening have no standing to complain,” Frank said. Frank said he would be happy to have conferences if Republican Senators would stop objecting. Frank added that Republicans regularly avoided real conferences during their rule, calling the complainers “hypocrites.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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