Unplugged: The Return of the Energy Bill

Oh, the irony. The same week Fortune magazine released a special "Climate Collapse" issue warning its double-starched readers of "growing evidence" that "abrupt climate change may well occur in the not-too-distant future," Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate have been attempting yet again to push through a controversial energy bill that would only intensify the threat.

In late January, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) announced that he would be "working closely with House leadership to see what steps we can take to get the last few votes we need for final passage." Soaring gasoline and home-heating costs as well as threats of blackouts due to a deep freeze in the Northeast have fueled Domenici's argument that it's time to pass the bill and step up energy production.

But worries about the federal deficit have changed the budgetary climate, so to speak, and could foul up his plan. The energy bill originally proposed by the White House would have cost $18 billion, but after Domenici larded it up with additional tax incentives and subsidies in an effort to buy as many votes as possible, the cost expanded to $31 billion. "There have been growing nationwide concerns about America's ballooning deficit, intensified by the primaries," said Bill Wicker, Democratic spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "and you can bet Karl Rove is putting pressure on senators not to make [spending commitments] that add fuel to the fire."

Discontent on this front is so pronounced that one senator who formerly backed the energy bill, John Ensign (R-Nev.), recently rescinded his support on the grounds that the legislation was loaded with too much fat. That puts the bill three votes shy of passage -- three votes that won't be easy to come by.

Domenici promised on Tuesday to trim significant fat from the bill. It may be that his newfound parsimony can attract a few votes, but then he may lose some that were purchased with pork.

"Basically it will take very delicate surgery on the part of the Republicans to try and keep this thing alive," said Wicker. "Of course, they are twisting and turning in the wind, trying to scrape together deals to get three more votes, but based on all the inside information we've gotten, nobody seems willing to budge."

Domenici also proposed dropping a controversial provision of the bill that would grant liability relief to manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE -- a move that seriously irked Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose home state is the top producer of the additive.

According to Congress Daily newsletter, a source in Domenici's office admitted that the MTBE move was part of an exit strategy to ensure that if the energy bill doesn't pass on its own, it can be attached as an amendment to must-pass transportation legislation. This "highway bill," which funnels money throughout the country for highway development and other popular projects, has overwhelming bipartisan support -- so much that it could include major components of the energy bill and still make it through the Senate.

But in a strange twist, the senator most resistant to this idea is James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the notoriously anti-environment chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- and the man ushering the transportation bill through the Senate. This week, Inhofe publicly rejected the idea of attaching the energy bill to the highway legislation, warning, "I really don't want to do that. I don't want to have any non-germane amendments or parts of the energy bill."

Thus, a senator who has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" may, by putting a final roadblock in the path of the energy bill, do more than any of his Republican colleagues to prevent it.

Oh, the irony.

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