Process Debate Saps Energy Bill

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:44pm

Senate Democrats and Republicans sought to position themselves Tuesday for the possibility of leaving town for the August recess without passing a measure to deal with high gas prices.

At press time, a bipartisan deal on floor consideration of an oil markets speculation bill appeared out of reach, but the rhetorical maneuvering suggested that both parties were trying to set themselves up to avoid being blamed for the possible failure of the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went so far as to take his appeal directly to reporters.

“I would hope that the press would be fair in reporting this, not your cynical self, saying, ‘Well, the Senate’s leaving not having done anything,’” Reid said at his weekly press conference. “We want to do something. We want to vote on speculation. We want to vote on what [Republicans have] talked about that they want done.”

But by early evening, Reid remained at an impasse with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the number and type of amendments permitted. The underlying measure is aimed at reducing the effects the oil futures market has on gas prices at the pump. Republicans and Democrats support the notion of tamping down on market speculation, but they disagree on exactly how to do that and its impact.

The standoff came as Republicans said they would insist on a “full and open debate” and as many as 28 amendments, while Reid has suggested two amendments per side.

“This is not one of those check the box, have a couple of amendments and move on kind of issues,” McConnell said.

Republicans also accused Reid of trying to set up the debate so that both the Democratic and the Republican amendments would fail.

“We get an amendment. They get an amendment. They both fail and we all go home,” complained Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). “We don’t want to rig the process where we don’t have a chance of winning something good and solid for the American people.”

Democrats have suggested setting 60-vote thresholds for all amendments to sidestep time-consuming procedural hurdles that would require the same number of votes for passage. None of the proposals being floated — including a new Democratic proposal to speed up the leasing and drilling process on federal lands — is expected to draw 60 votes.

Despite Republican entreaties to have a free-for-all debate, Reid appeared disinclined to compromise on the number of amendments. Asked whether he thought there was any middle ground between having two amendments and 28, Reid said, “No, I don’t.”

Reid explained, “I don’t know how we could be more reasonable” than to offer Republicans an opportunity to vote on the pro-drilling bill that McConnell and other leaders have touted under the slogan “Find More, Use Less.”

Republicans have been crowing privately for weeks that they are united behind a single bill that would encourage more drilling and more conservation, while Democrats have appeared to flounder without a cohesive plan.

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) might have muddied the notion that Republicans are unified when he explained that Republicans need to offer dozens of amendments because, “We’re not all of one mind. So, it’s not like there’s one plan. There are a lot of different ideas.”

The fight over energy policy even spilled over into the appropriations arena, with Domenici accusing Democrats of canceling two spending bill markups to avoid votes on drilling and energy exploration. The Senate Appropriations panel did cancel its scheduled Wednesday markups of a second supplemental spending bill and the fiscal 2009 Interior and environment funding bill. Domenici was planning on offering amendments to lift moratoriums on drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf as well as on oil shale production, his spokesman said.

One Senate Democratic aide, however, said the cancellations were due to spats between the House and Senate over who should move first to mark up spending bills. The House has not moved on either measure.

Despite the sharp rhetoric from leaders, rank-and-file Senators seemed amenable to a compromise on the number of amendments.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said he would be comfortable having a vote just on the GOP’s bill on drilling and conservation.

“In my view, that would be enough,” Martinez said.

Similarly, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he would be open to allowing each party a handful of amendments, and he warned that arguing over process would only hurt both parties in the end.

“Then you just get into the finger-pointing game, and the American people are just tired of that,” he said.