A Twitch Before Dying?

U.S. oil prices jumped to their highest levels since the Iraq war this week, hitting $37.51 a barrel, for an average of about $1.74 a gallon -- unwelcome news for those feeling the pinch at the pump, but great news for supporters of the newly overhauled but still-stalled energy bill.

"They've been waiting for something like this -- a blackout, a spike in gas prices, a terrorist attack -- anything to convince a majority in the Senate that they have no choice but to steamroll this energy bill through," said a staffer at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Sure enough, on Monday, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chair of the ENR committee, announced that the energy bill would come up for consideration again at the end of this month -- when high gas prices will still be fresh on senators' (or, more to the point, their constituents') minds.

Right on cue, a chorus of Bush officials chimed in to play up economic fears: Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said last week that the administration is "extremely concerned" about gasoline prices and called on Congress to pass the energy bill. His colleague Treasury Secretary John Snow used concern about rising oil prices -- expected to continue their upward trajectory through the summer -- to call for "greater access to reliable and dependable U.S. energy supplies like ANWR."

Support for the energy bill isn't just coming from the GOP -- Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is now among its most enthusiastic proponents. The bill became more palatable to Daschle once deals were struck to remove a controversial provision that would have given liability relief to manufacturers of the fuel additive MTBE, which has contaminated water supplies throughout the nation, and to cut the corpulent $31 billion package to a comparatively lean $15 billion -- though it still channels plenty of pork to polluting energy companies.

Daschle not only expressed support for the new version of the bill, but anticipated bringing along up to six new Democratic yea votes. "It's Sen. Daschle's belief that there's a reasonable chance that this new version will pass at the end of the month," his spokesperson, Sarah Feinberg, told Grist.
Domenici is equally upbeat: "We're feeling pretty confident," said his spokesperson, Marnie Funk. "We've made the changes to get the bill through the Senate that will appeal to Democrats who disliked the MTBE issue and the Republicans who were worried about cost. The vote count seems promising."

According to an ENR committee staff member who asked to remain anonymous, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Daschle have been getting positive feedback on the Republican side from Sens. Rick Santorum (Penn.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Don Nickles (Okla.), and John Ensign (Nev.) -- all of whom had grumbled about the high costs of the original bill.

But critics of the energy bill are singing a very different tune: "Put your bullshit detector on high alert," said Kevin Curtis, vice president of National Environmental Trust. "We're in election time, and from now to the end of this session it's less and less about passing legislation and more about emphasizing the differences between certain politicians and parties."

Bill Wicker, communications director for the Democratic minority on the ENR committee, adds that he has heard nothing definitive about new votes promised since the energy bill was reworked.

It's no secret that Daschle, for instance, has political reasons to put on a happy face. He's in a tight battle for his Senate seat this year, and the energy bill includes tax subsidies for ethanol production that would increase corn prices by as much as $0.50 per bushel, create an estimated 10,000 new jobs in his state, and generate $620 million for South Dakota's economy, Daschle says. Whether or not the bill is likely to pass, it behooves the senator to convince his constituency that he's making progress pushing it through Congress.

Likewise, Domenici's optimism should be taken with a grain of salt: One senior Republican Senate aide confessed to a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal in Domenici's home state of New Mexico over the weekend that the bill's prospects are not so hot. "The odds of getting an energy bill along the lines of what we have proposed is maybe 25 percent," the aide said.

Another indication that the forecast is gloomy came in a Monday article in CongressDaily about Senate Republicans with so little faith in the energy bill's passage that they are maneuvering key portions of it onto other pieces of legislation that have better chances of making it to President Bush's desk. Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is orchestrating the process; last month he inserted ethanol tax provisions into a transportation bill, and last week he proposed an amendment to a corporate tax bill that would extend a tax credit for wind energy production for a year. "Both provisions are crucial to maintaining the coalition ... needed to move a large energy bill through the Senate," wrote CongressDaily reporter John Stanton.

But let's say Domenici, Daschle, and Frist manage to maneuver the energy bill through the Senate in late March. There's no guarantee that it will then make it past the House. In fact, last week House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) gave the Senate version the big, fat, Texas finger, saying it's unacceptable because it doesn't protect MTBE manufacturers, the overwhelming majority of which are in his state. Even after a personal call from Bush entreating him, essentially, to get over himself, DeLay held his ground: No energy bill without MTBE liability relief would get past him.

The situation is rich with irony: DeLay is so committed to his special interests that he's willing to defy his own president; by doing so, he may serve the public interest after all.

Amanda Griscom writes the Muckraker column for Grist Magazine.

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