- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

A House-Senate conference last night approved a Republican-backed energy bill, clearing the way for the legislation to go to the two chambers for final approval, probably this week.

The panel spent much of the day sweeping aside Democrat bids to change the bill. Democrats were able to get several amendments approved by the Senate half of the conference team yesterday, but the conference’s House members rejected all of them.

House negotiators passed the bill by voice vote, followed by approval from the Senate side by a vote of 8-5. The seven Republican senators were joined by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, in support of the bill.

“This is a solid agreement,” Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, said as he opened the bipartisan conference designed to merge bills passed this year by the House and Senate. “I don’t think we can take a risk of undoing this.”

House negotiators said any changes would upset the political compromises reached in 71 days of closed-door talks between conservatives in both houses and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Among the amendments killed by the House team after being offered by Senate negotiators was a provision to require electric utilities to produce 10 percent of their power from renewable fuels. Another was a proposal that would repeal the excise tax on ethanol.

“The Democratic conference vigorously objected to this process, and our concerns were well-founded. This bill does not go far enough to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, waives important environmental legislation and has too many pork-barrel programs,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat.

Congressional estimates released yesterday put the cost of the total package at a higher-than-expected $32 billion over 10 years — $23 billion in tax breaks and about $9 billion in spending measures and lost revenue. Republican conference leaders said they would finish last night so the House could take up the bill as early as today.

Republican lawmakers said Democrats should have no reason to balk at the legislation, given its emphasis on renewable-energy options and conservation mandates.

“We provide billions of dollars in dozens of ways to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and the chief House negotiator.

More than $5.2 billion in tax credits and other tax benefits over 10 years for developing renewable-energy sources are in the bill, including tax breaks for corn-based ethanol and the addition of 5 billion gallons of ethanol to the nation’s fuel sources.

“It makes sense to use the tax code to develop alternative energy,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican. “Cutting taxes is an effective way to encourage positive, environmentally conscious ways to produce electricity and fuel. This is a good, green energy tax package.”

The bill includes $550 million in grants for biomass programs and $100 million in spending for increased hydropower. There also is $300 million for solar programs, with a directive for the federal government to use 7.5 percent more renewable energy by 2011.

The bill’s major provisions also include tax incentives worth $14.5 billion for the oil, natural gas and coal industries, and a $1.8 billion research project to develop clean coal technology and tax benefits for a new generation of nuclear power plants.

Democrats were pleased to see left out a proposal to allow oil drilling in part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) — an option the Bush administration initially insisted be in the package.

Republicans knuckled under and left out ANWR drilling, knowing it would be a deal breaker among Senate Democrats, three of whom are running for president.

The legislation also did not, contrary to the wishes of some Democrats, tighten automobile fuel-efficiency standards or put limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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