The massive blackout last week will force Congress to directly address the fractured electricity-delivery system in the country, a complicated task that legislators were poised to largely avoid as they enter a conference for an omnibus energy bill next month.
Senate Republicans were determined to freeze until 2005 a plan by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to oversee the upgrading of the national electricity grid and to regulate the transmission of power across state lines.
The blackout that affected 50 million people here and in Canada, however, might induce Republicans to drop their demand and go along with President Bush, who supports giving FERC more power rather than ceding authority to the states.
The House version of the energy bill does not include freezing FERC’s plan, and energy committee staffers from both parties agree that momentum may have shifted to the pro-FERC side.
“You have millions of people around America watching millions of people walk home from closed places of business to their dark houses,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “That gets people’s attention.”
Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, proposed taking the electricity provision out of the energy bill and dealing with it separately.
That’s unlikely, because Republicans who want support for the energy-production measures in the bill — such as subsidies for the construction of nuclear power plants — will use the desire of legislators to address the electricity problems to attract more votes for the omnibus bill.
“The Democrats say, ‘Let’s do all the noncontroversial stuff separately,’” said a Republican staffer who requested anonymity. “If you did that, you’d end up with no [new energy] production, and those are the tough votes.”
Bill Wicker, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the blackout reinforced the senator’s view that FERC needs to exercise more power.
“FERC [action] would not be on the table as an option” if Republicans got their way and the rules are frozen, Mr. Wicker said. “We think that [the blackout] will mean that careful consideration will have to be given to all matters related to electricity.”
Meanwhile, the White House yesterday ridiculed Democrats’ contentions that Mr. Bush’s desire to drill for oil in Alaska held up passage of an energy bill that might have mitigated the blackout.
“It’s ridiculous,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “Are these the same people that are pointing fingers, saying that if that one provision is taken out that they will now support a comprehensive energy plan as outlined by the president?
“I mean, of course not,” he added. “I think that what you’re seeing is political posturing.”
On Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, blamed the president and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, for insisting that the energy bill include a provision for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is opposed by environmentalists.
“President Bush and Tom DeLay put the interests of the energy companies before the interests of the American people by insisting we drill in ANWR and other environmentally sensitive areas rather than modernize our energy system,” she said.
Yesterday, the White House suggested that Democrats were fixating on the ANWR flap while ignoring the larger energy problems.
“We need comprehensive solutions, not patchwork crisis management,” Mr. McClellan told reporters near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. “I mean, we are now in today’s crisis. We don’t know what tomorrow’s crisis is going to be.
“But leadership is about acting to address big challenges in a comprehensive way,” he added. “It’s not about shirking responsibility and governing crisis by crisis.”
The White House would not rule out the possibility of abandoning the ANWR provision to ensure passage of the rest of the energy bill. The House and Senate have passed their versions of the bill, but have failed to reconcile their differences in conference committee.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, however, has declared the ANWR issue “dead” because the Senate defeated a drilling measure earlier this year. Energy experts said Mr. Domenici will use his considerable influence to ensure that any ANWR provisions are not in the final version of the bill.
Administration officials pointed out that Mr. Bush has been pushing Congress vigorously for more than two years to pass his energy proposal, which includes plans to upgrade the nation’s electrical grid to prevent blackouts.
“There was an entire chapter in that energy report called America’s Energy Infrastructure,” Mr. McClellan said. “And it talks about the need to modernize the electricity grid and our electric-delivery system.”
It also calls for cracking down on power providers that do not adhere to federal reliability standards. The White House wants to mandate standards that are now voluntary.
“People will have to comply with those standards, and if they don’t, then we will go after them,” Mr. McClellan said. “Some of the legislation calls for some fines for failing to comply with those reliability standards.”