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Gop senates push energy bill { July 28 2003 }

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GOP Senators to Push Energy Bill
Leaders Threaten to Postpone August Recess Until Legislation Is Passed

By Peter Behr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2003; Page A19

Senate Republican leaders will try this week to pass a massive energy package sought by President Bush and are threatening to force colleagues to delay a cherished August recess until the work is done.

The legislation attempts to create a winning coalition by appealing to a spectrum of energy interests as broad as the economy itself.

"The main bill should be found acceptable by an overwhelming majority," declared Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as debate on the bill resumed Thursday. "The idea is, if you want to recess, finish the energy bill."

The legislation would expand nuclear power; support construction of a $20 billion gas pipeline from Alaska; double production of corn-based motor fuel; fund research on cleaner coal, hydrogen fuel cells and high-tech light bulbs; speed up permits for oil and gas drilling; create corridors for new transmission lines; and permit wind farms and coal production on Indian reservations.

A companion tax measure offers $16 billion in subsidies and incentives for energy production and conservation by 2008. The tax benefits would include credits to motorists purchasing hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and homeowners who buy renewable energy devices such as solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. The Senate is also trying to vote on this measure this week.

But Domenici's consensus may not materialize.

Public attention and political urgency on energy issues have faded since the spring, when U.S. forces were rushing to secure Iraqi oil fields and energy prices vibrated up and down on the war news.

Sharp partisan disputes remain over the choice of drilling for energy in public lands or protecting them.

Presidential campaign issues will surface in this week's debate, with confrontations between White House and Democratic positions on auto fuel economy standards, climate protection, energy conservation and responses to the Enron scandal. A bill this big may collapse of its own weight if too many senators oppose its final provisions or are uneasy about its consequences, Senate strategists say.

"It's wildly optimistic to think that a bill with several hundred amendments could get through the Senate in a week," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), the top Democrat on the Interior Department appropriations subcommittee. "It is certainly important to have an energy bill, but we have to get it right. I know they are impatient, but it has been on the floor only eight days."

But with other controversial congressional measures waiting their turn, this week may be the window for energy legislation this year.

The legislation seeks to speed up the federal permitting for oil and gas drilling, a frequently drawn-out process that energy companies blame for cutting production and environmental groups defend. But many other major provisions would not have a big impact for years.

Attempts to do more with energy policy run into powerful regional, industrial and political interests, said former senator Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), a leader of a foundation-backed energy coalition composed of business, labor and environmental groups.

The oil, utility and transportation industries have strong political support, Wirth said. He added that although the environmental lobby can block opponents' initiatives, it isn't as effective in gaining support for its agenda. "As a consequence," he said, "little progress has been made toward breaking the gridlock."

The House approved an energy bill in April with a 247 to 175 vote in what the president called "a major step forward in the effort to secure our nation's energy future." The final vote came after the Republican majority rejected Democratic amendments to increase energy conservation programs in the bill, reduce subsidies for oil and gas production, and tighten regulations on electricity producers.

Among the failed Democratic initiatives was a proposal to increase the fuel efficiency of sport-utility vehicles by 5 percent by 2010.

The House bill authorizes drilling along the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coast in Alaska. But the Senate has already voted against that initiative.

Even if Domenici brings a bill out of the Senate this week, finding common ground between House and Senate versions later this year would be a tough challenge, members of Congress said.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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