- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003

Pressure from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill appears to have forced a deal on a massive and complicated bill that would set a new course for U.S. energy policy for the first time in more than a decade.

Prospects for a bill seemed to dim as the week dragged on, but they suddenly brightened late Friday when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, suggested to members that a vote could be held Tuesday.

“We’re pretty close to being done,” Mr. Hastert told reporters.

Late Thursday night, the Republican chairmen of Congress’s two energy committees, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, said that only a few details over tax breaks for ethanol and natural gas industries remained to be worked out.

“I think we are within a hair’s breadth of finishing,” Mr. Tauzin said Thursday. “There’s a good chance we can take this up on the floor next week.”

Other major sticking points remained over how to upgrade the nation’s electricity grid, deciding the fate of a contentious fuel additive that leaks into groundwater and disputes over drilling for oil offshore and in Alaska.

The last two items are among the most contentious. Democratic senators have threatened to filibuster any bill that includes drilling in a small portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) or even exploring for oil off the nation’s coasts.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said Friday he was “very troubled by the direction” the Republican-controlled conference was taking the energy bill.

“I don’t think there’s any expectation that these matters will be resolved, at least in the short term,” Mr. Daschle said, complaining that Republicans have tried to “dictate to us what the final decisions would be” in the bill.

“If we move backwards, rather than forward, in energy policy, the American people are quite content with what we have now,” Mr. Daschle said. “We can do this right, but it’s going to take a lot more bipartisanship than what we’ve seen so far.”

One of Mr. Daschle’s main concerns is the possible lack of sufficient tax breaks for the ethanol industry, a major constituency in farm states. Sources close to the conference committee said that the part of the measure dealing with ethanol was sweetened to increase support for the entire bill.

The popularity of those subsidies, Republicans hope, would fend off a filibuster if the bill includes drilling in ANWR, considered a dead issue when it failed to gain sufficient support in a Senate vote earlier this year. Mr. Domenici for weeks has refused to even broach the topic with reporters.

The conferees hammering out the details of the bill remained tight-lipped but refused to rule out an ANWR drilling provision, the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s energy policy.

“If the Democrats are going to filibuster over this one provision, let them do it,” said Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis. “I’d make them defend their position, that because of this one issue, we get nothing. Call their bluff. If it’s not a bluff, make them pay.”

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