A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers will meet this week to map out a strategy for pushing forward a comprehensive energy agreement in the waning days of the 110th Congress, despite a lukewarm reception for the deal from GOP leaders and an increasingly partisan election-year atmosphere.
Members of the group over the past several months have hashed out a sweeping energy bill that includes not only expanded spending on renewable forms of energy and conservation, but also new drilling opportunities, particularly in coastal areas.
While gasoline prices have steadily declined over the past several weeks, they remain significantly higher than last year and are a major concern of voters making this an opportune time to act, group members said.
That old saying, strike while the iron is hot … its really imperative, said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a member of the Gang of 10, which is led by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
According to Nelson, the group is expected to meet early this week to discuss the best strategy for moving the package forward. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he would like to bring the energy package to the floor this month, a leadership aide said it is unclear when he would do so and in what form.
According to this aide, Reid will likely meet with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week to discuss the legislation. Before going ahead, Reid wants to feel out the Republican leader on whether an agreement can be struck to move the package separately or bundled with other energy issues, including legislation on energy market speculation or extending a set of energy tax provisions that are set to expire.
Reid needs to find out what they want to move before deciding when, and exactly what, he will bring to the floor, the aide said.
Although McConnell is unlikely to settle on a course of action until after his Conference has a chance to meet this week, Republicans said it is unlikely they will agree to move a bill without the opportunity to amend it a condition that they have insisted on during virtually every major policy debate and something that has chaffed Reid considerably.
Republicans, who have also used the energy issue to their political advantage this summer, appeared hesitant to give up one of the few winning issues they have this election year, arguing that Democrats should have agreed to a debate prior to the August recess.
According to Nelson, during Gang of 10 talks, GOP leaders were lukewarm to quite cold to the idea of a bipartisan deal and that it is unclear whether they will support it now.
GOP aides acknowledged that action on energy legislation should have begun earlier in the year and warned that Democrats may simply be looking to try to railroad Republicans into opposing the bill by refusing to allow amendments.
The Senate should have taken up energy legislation weeks and weeks ago, but Democrats have used parliamentary procedure to stall, one GOP leadership aide said. Reid may once again hint at a possible energy debate that includes plenty of amendment opportunities and then back away at the last minute while trying to blame the collapse on Republicans.
And, in a sign of the growing impact the presidential race is having on the Senate, Republicans last week already began invoking the name of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin their partys vice presidential nominee in their energy talking points.
Republican progress in the energy debate and Gov. Palins close association with the issue certainly have to concern Congressional Democrats who know their energy stance puts them at odds with most Americans, Senate Republican Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn said.
As for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democratic nominee, Nelson said he has discussed the bill with his camp and that while he may not support every aspect of the legislation, he favors moving it forward because of its bipartisan support.
While he may not agree with everything in it, first he supports the fact that its bipartisan, and secondly he can accept some drilling if its part of a comprehensive approach, Nelson said.
The draft bill would provide significant funding to boost the development and purchasing of energy-efficient vehicles, including a $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of a new advanced-fuel and fuel-efficient car or truck and up to $2,500 to upgrade older vehicles, according to a summary of the bill. It would also invest $15 billion in research and development efforts for efficient car batteries and alternative-fuel technologies.
The bill would also include more than $3 billion in new investment in the development of renewable energy sources such as biofuels, solar and wind energy while expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
State legislatures in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia would also be given the ability to lease drilling off their shores, and the bill would formalize a 50-mile buffer zone where new oil production is not allowed.