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Amid Grumbles, Energy Vote Set

House Democrats inched toward a historic vote on a massive energy package expected today after a day of bill-tweaking and vote-whipping that softened some provisions but kept intact the overall package, amid grumbling from some Democrats that they are being asked to vote for provisions that could end up dead in the Senate or vetoed by President Bush.

Rep. Gene Green (Texas), an oil-patch Democrat, said he will oppose the bill because of a $21 billion package that will shift tax breaks from oil companies to renewable energy. Green said Democrats should move an energy-efficiency and vehicle fuel-economy standards bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president.

“The electricity standards couldn’t get through the Senate, the tax issue couldn’t get through the Senate,” Green said. “We don’t want to be Btu’d,” Green said, in reference to the ill-fated Btu energy tax, which passed the House under President Clinton only to die in the Senate.

“We’ve already sent a message bill over to the Senate. [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards are a big deal. Let’s take this half a loaf and get what we can.”

But Green’s viewpoint was shared by a distinct minority, and Democratic leaders expressed confidence that they would have the votes despite the grumbling.

“This will pass the House, there is no question about that,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. Boucher said Wednesday that the bill had been tweaked to reduce the penalty for utilities that don’t meet a 15 percent standard for renewable electricity from 3 cents a kilowatt-hour to 2.5 cents, but he said he still did not support that provision and doesn’t think it can survive the Senate.

“That’s extremely controversial and with good reason,” Boucher said. “I oppose it myself, but I will vote for the overall bill.”

Boucher said the renewable standard is unfair to Southern states that do not have cheap access to renewable wind and solar power and whose electricity customers would in effect pay a renewables tax that would be funneled to other parts of the country.

Senators in states without major renewable resources would have a tough time backing the measure, Boucher said. “The whole Southeast will have a problem. It’s not fair and on its merits it deserves to lose.”

Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) said he and other Southern Democrats had urged leadership to include a provision allowing nuclear power to be used to help meet the renewable standard, but to no avail. “There is no doubt that Southern states have a problem because there’s not much available wind and solar.”

That being said, Davis said, “I’d much rather pay Midwest states that produce solar and wind than Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly.”

Davis himself needn’t worry too much. Nonprofit utilities including the Tennessee Valley Authority were given an exemption from the requirements.

Boucher said the electricity provision as well as the tax provision could result in the bill pingponging between the chambers in the next few weeks given that there was no conference committee.

Boucher also expressed disappointment that the bill only included minor advantages for the coal industry and lacked coal-to-liquids and other provisions he and others from coal country strongly support.

“We will have to address those in the climate change bill,” he added.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, sent a letter to the Bush administration in which she claimed to have addressed the White House’s concerns about the bill.

“We have crafted legislation that addresses the areas of concern raised in your letter, and this bipartisan legislation has earned the strong support of leaders in the business, labor, faith, and environmental communities across the nation,” Pelosi wrote to Bush economic adviser Allan Hubbard.

But the bill contains major provisions that Bush has opposed in the past, including the tax provisions and the electricity standards, and Republicans expect a formal veto threat to be forthcoming.

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to beat up on the bill as a job-killer that would raise energy prices. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) argued that oil companies should continue to get tax breaks lest they decide to drill elsewhere.

“Democrats are giddy for going green,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), arguing that it would cost consumers “green” in their wallets.

And House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “You can’t overregulate the production of energy and you can’t overtax the production of energy the way they want to do it and expect to get more energy.”

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Republican-led Congresses had focused on fossil fuels of the past.

“The future is relying on fuels which will substantially reduce any carbon imprint and substantially speak to the global warming threat that confronts our planet,” Hoyer said.

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