- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

The House Republican leadership wants the Senate to “stop making excuses” and pass the energy bill that has been stalled since last year.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, released a statement last week urging the Senate to move forward on the bill, saying it could produce jobs and stave off a looming energy crisis.

“There are storm clouds on the horizon, especially when it comes to higher energy prices. Gas prices are approaching two dollars a gallon. Natural gas prices are skyrocketing. And the electric grid needs serious work. All of these factors could derail our economy and cost jobs,” Mr. Hastert said.

The House and Senate energy committees last fall approved a comprehensive $31 billion spending bill, which includes research funding for alternative fuel sources, corporate tax incentives for pollution abatement and liability protection for producers of the MTBE fuel additive.

The bill has languished in the Senate over politics and bruised egos.

Senate Democrats felt snubbed after Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, locked them out of conference negotiations with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats want to pass portions of the more than 1,000-page bill to clear the way for debate on the more contentious language.

“Congress can accomplish a lot by legislating our nation’s energy problems in smaller bites, rather than trying to swallow whole a supersized energy bill,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat and ranking member of the energy committee.

The bill has failed to pass twice.

Mr. Domenici, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, worked out a stripped-down version of the bill last month, intending to get the $14 billion proposal to the floor for debate with as few amendments as possible. But that plan also was stymied.

“We have not had any discussions in the last couple of days. Our expectation is that when we come back from the next state work period that we will schedule the energy bill,” Mr. Daschle said before the Senate went into recess last week. It reconvenes today.

Part of the delay on the energy bill is Mr. Daschle’s need to get the ethanol provisions passed in an election year. The provisions would please the thousands of corn growers in his home state and other Midwestern states.

The other part is a provision granting liability immunity on MTBE, or methy tertiary-butyl ether, a fuel additive that has been the target of civil lawsuits by environmentalists. Democrats view the provision as a corporate giveaway.

House Republicans say the bill will not pass without the MTBE language.

“This is a matter of a very delicate compromise with [provisions for] ethanol and MTBE liability. If Mr. Daschle wants to talk about ethanol, he need to pass this bill,” said a House Republican staffer.

Mr. Daschle is scrambling for two critical votes to get the bill to the floor.

“I think that we … made a major step forward in taking out all the MTBE liability immunity. I think that was by far the biggest stumbling block,” he said.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said the negotiating has gone on long enough and blamed the delay on special-interest politics.

“He should be able to rustle up a couple of colleagues so we can get this to the president’s desk,” spokesman Jonathan Grella said.

“Democrats are looking for excuses to oppose this bill so they don’t irritate their special interests in an election year,” he said.

Mr. Hastert made it clear that time is running out.

“It is time for the Senate Democratic minority, led by Senator Daschle and Senator Kerry, to halt their procedural gamesmanship and allow this bill to get a clean up or down vote,” he said.

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