The Energy Bill Sideshow

If at first you succeed, well, try again anyway.

That's how GOP leaders in the House are reinterpreting the old elementary-school bromide as they attempt to create the illusion of hope for the doomed, pork-laden energy bill -- and to deflect the political heat over high gas prices away from the White House and onto the Democrats.

For more than a month, the Republican House leadership has been planning a much-touted "energy week" centered on legislation [PDF] that mimics nearly verbatim the Energy Policy Act -- that same old bill that sailed through the House last fall with avid support from the White House, but was then defeated twice by filibusters in the Senate.

Energy week, which was scheduled for last week but sputtered in the face of memorial services for Ronald Reagan, has now been condensed into a two-day event starting yesterday, during which the House will vote on the revived energy bill and a series of other bills designed to boost energy production in the United States -- and ostensibly reduce gas prices.

Among the bills is a renewed effort [PDF] introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) last week to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration. Another bill [PDF] would give the Department of Energy authority to build new oil-refining facilities in low-employment communities nationwide, even if the U.S. EPA objects on the grounds that the refineries would cause disproportionate pollution problems in those areas. A third [PDF] proposes to weaken National Environmental Policy Act requirements for the siting of "renewable energy projects" -- a term loosely defined in the bill as "any proposal to utilize an energy source other than nuclear power or the combustion of coal, oil, or natural gas," meaning it could accelerate not only the development of hydroelectric dams but also, bizarrely, the exploration for and drilling of fossil fuels.

"The public should be outraged," said Mark Wenzler, director of global warming and energy programs at National Environmental Trust. "Congress is wasting time and energy on bills that are so preposterous, so damaging to the environment, and so irrelevant to the larger pursuit of lowering gas prices that they would surely be dead on arrival in the Senate"

Critics say the House leadership knows full well that the bills will never make it to the president's desk. They argue that the energy package is a transparently political maneuver to push through a series of bills that Senate Democrats will be sure to vote against, thereby creating an opportunity for Republicans to blame Democrats for high gas prices.

"The whole thing is a sham," said Jim Waltman, director of refuge and wildlife programs for the Wilderness Society. "It's just an elaborate Beltway blame game."

Lisa Miller, a spokesperson for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, made no bones about the fact that GOP leaders in the House are making a political statement: The shortened energy week "is simply a way to reinforce the fact that the nation requires a cohesive policy which provides energy to people at prices they can afford to pay."

One of her colleagues on the committee staff, who asked to remain anonymous, put it even more directly: "This is designed as basically a nudge to the Senate. It makes the statement at a time of high gas prices that America needs an aggressive energy policy and we need it now."

Yet there's no reason to believe that the energy bill would do anything at all to ease the pinch at the pump. In fact, according to a report released recently by the Energy Information Administration, a data-collection arm of the Department of Energy, even if the bill were passed, "changes to production, consumption, imports, and prices [would be] negligible."

Still, President Bush has been pressing for the bill in the name of lower gas prices: "I'll repeat it again: Congress, pass the energy bill," he told reporters at a press conference on June 1. "What you're seeing at the gas pumps is something I've been warning for two years, and that is that we're hooked on foreign sources of energy ... Had we drilled in ANWR back in the mid-'90s, [it would have taken] enormous pressure off the American consumer."

He said that the real culprits for America's energy woes were Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whom he blamed for failing to get enough Democratic votes to push the bill through the Senate.

Daschle's press secretary, Sarah Feinberg, dismissed the House's maneuvering as a stunt: "This effort is the definition of the do-nothing Congress. ... The Republican leaders of the House are now spending days of taxpayer time and dollars making a big to-do about passing legislation that they've already passed simply to make political hay out of this issue. How much more desperate can they get?"

Feinberg added that the GOP leaders aren't really serious about passing the energy bill: "If they were, they'd remove the liability waiver for MTBE manufacturers, which is the major point of contention for the bipartisan opposition to the bill," she said.

Bill Wicker, spokesperson for the Democratic members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, added that "the greatest irony of all is that on some level it isn't in the GOP's interest for this energy bill to pass." Here's why: It would be seen as a political win for Daschle, who has been the leading Democratic voice in favor of the bill. Daschle is in a tight race for reelection, and Republicans eager to see him knocked from his seat don't want to give him any good news to take home to corn growers in his home state, who would stand to benefit from ethanol subsidies in the bill.

"The House wants to repass this energy bill for one reason alone: to put the bogey on Senate Democrats," Wicker told Muckraker. "It's shameless politicking. But what else can you expect in an election year?"

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