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Competing Energy Measures to Fuel Senate Debate

Just two weeks before the Memorial Day recess, the Senate has a full plate, but bickering over dueling energy packages may stand in the way of progress.

When the Senate convenes Tuesday, lawmakers will vote on a flood insurance bill that reauthorizes the National Flood Insurance Program through 2013 and forgives the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s $17 billion debt to the U.S. Treasury.

The flood insurance bill alone will not cause any fireworks, but two competing amendments on energy sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to address increasing gas prices could bring the chamber to a standstill.

Last week, McConnell offered the Republican energy plan that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. President Bush and Senate Republicans recently revived the domestic-drilling topic, sensing that it might be more favorably received in a climate of surging gas prices. But ANWR is a political hot potato and is likely to be cast aside once again.

In response, Reid introduced his own amendment that would suspend contributions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a proposal that has received widespread support from Democrats and Republicans. The plan was initially proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who set out to attach it to the now-failed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill.

Dorgan also proposed inserting the plan into the war supplemental bill during its Senate Appropriations Committee markup.

Senate Democrats unveiled their proposal May 7 to curb gas prices, which included a halt on distributions to the reserve, a windfall tax on the profits of Big Oil, and an investigation into alleged gas price gouging. It would also reverse $17 billion in tax breaks to oil companies.

A senior Democratic aide said that Reid’s plan to halt donations to the petroleum reserve is expected to pass as an amendment to the flood bill, especially since many Republicans have expressed an interest in the oil pause.

The aide would not say when the other parts of the Democrats’ gasoline plan would be sent to the Senate floor.

After a vote on the flood insurance bill, the Senate will proceed to a public safety employee bill that would ensure state law allows firefighters and law enforcement officers to join labor organizations and permits employers to negotiate with the labor organizations over personnel disputes.

The labor bill is largely viewed as a symbolic Democratic move that would rouse the party’s base as did the fair pay bill in April, which did not get cloture. However, what complicates the GOP attempt to block the bill this time is that it was introduced by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and has 12 other Republican co-sponsors.

One Republican aide said that the bill is deeply flawed because Democratic leaders did not allow the bill to go through the committee process.

“This law overturns 70 years of national labor relations law. This is another general pep rally by the Democrats to bypass the proper procedures of the Senate and then to point fingers at Republicans,” the GOP aide said.

The aide said that even though the labor legislation raises many questions, it is likely to pass. The aide also noted that there had been a previous attempt to attach the public safety proposal to the farm bill, saying that it is likely that will happen again.

The Senate Appropriations Committee plans to mark up the Iraq supplemental bill on Thursday, one week after it canceled the original session because House leaders face intraparty squabbling about domestic spending items in their version of the war spending measure.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) said he will maintain the rescheduled date whether the House acts on the supplemental or not.

Both House and Senate Democratic leaders have been involved in intense debate on how to proceed with the supplemental bill. Reid has said that he is willing to bypass the Appropriations markup process, but has made no clear action in that favor.

What’s more, Senate lawmakers expect to consider the farm conference report later in the week once the House acts, according to a Democratic aide. Democratic Senators have been waiting patiently for House Members to consider the farm bill, an expensive $300 million renewal of farm programs.

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