Congress jostles for position on energy bill

Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) With Congress out of town for August and then likely focused on spending bills through September, a two-month game of positioning on a final national energy policy bill has begun.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said last week that he has no doubt that a joint House-Senate conference committee will produce a final version. Republicans have the majority in the committee and they want a bill, Stevens said, so there will be no repeat of protracted, unsuccessful conference efforts last year.

Just what will be in that bill remains a subject of much speculation.

Both Stevens and Gov. Frank Murkowski have said the bill likely will contain financial incentives to build a natural gas line from Alaska to the Lower 48, and perhaps long-sought language to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Democrats have supported gas line incentives, but the party's ranking member on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week warned that Republicans should stay away from ANWR.

''The strength of this bill is its broad, bipartisan support, and we hope the conference will produce a bill that can command similar bipartisan support,'' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

To date, ANWR language has not gained enough bipartisan backing to overcome filibuster threats by several senators.

Both Stevens and Murkowski have suggested that might change.

Stevens pointed to energy prices.

''I really think this is a crisis era for energy pricing and energy policy,'' he said.

But when pressed, Stevens seemed to back off a bit.

''So you're going to try on ANWR, seriously?'' a reporter asked.

''I'm not on the conference,'' Stevens said.

''Do you anticipate the majority trying seriously?'' the reporter asked.

''It's in the House's bill. I assume the House is going to try to get it in,'' Stevens said. ''I'm not involved with that. You guys for some reason or another want us to answer questions about what's in other people's minds, other people's motivations. My motivation is to get a bill. I'm part of a leadership that wants a bill, that is committed to getting a bill. And we will get a bill.''

Stevens said a small faction of Senate Democrats, what he calls a ''minority of the minority,'' do not want an energy bill. That group spent the last week on the Senate floor stalling it, he said.

That strategy may come to an end in October, he said.

''If the minority of the minority wants to stop it, that's their privilege, but the majority of the minority is going to take the blame if that happens,'' he said.

Murkowski, who spent 20 years as a senator, has made the same points, with more theory about how a filibuster might be stopped.

Murkowski on Monday in Fairbanks asserted that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D, has a great incentive to pass an energy bill, even if it has ANWR-opening language. Daschle, facing a tough re-election fight, wants ethanol subsidies the bill would provide, Murkowski noted.

Last year, Daschle appointed prominent ANWR-drilling opponents to the conference committee that killed the bill.

''I don't think you're going to see that this time,'' Murkowski said.

Murkowski said a pro-drilling bill has a chance on the Senate floor.

''I don't think you're going to see those high-profile members threaten to filibuster the conference report,'' he said.

Stevens on Friday expressed discomfort with such talk.

''I'm not going to talk about the opposition. We don't know yet; they haven't seen our final language and I think that a lot of people, including the governor, are talking too much about what may happen in conference,'' Stevens said. ''Our job is to get the best bill we can get, and we're going to work that way and I'm not going to tell you what negotiations are going on.''

But Stevens also said there is a chance that a pro-drilling bill will avoid a Democratic filibuster.

''Because it's not a majority of the minority,'' he said. ''It's a minority of the minority that has been stubborn and the rest of the minority wouldn't go against them.''

Stevens said he considered it a coup to have passed an energy bill last week, even though Republicans had to take the version developed under then-Senate Majority Leader Daschle last year.

That allowed Democrats such as Bingaman to declare victory and ''a vindication of the leadership shown by Sen. Daschle in the last Congress.''

Passing the bill, Bingaman said, demonstrated that the Senate accepted ''the balance we successfully struck between energy production and energy efficiency.'' It also affirmed ''our recognition of the linkage between energy policy and environmental policy, including climate change,'' he said.

Stevens vehemently disagreed with the linkage but said the Democratic crowing was worth it.

''They outfoxed themselves last night,'' he said. There is no question that a Republican-crafted energy bill will come out of conference, he said. It will then move to high-profile floor debates where Senate Democrats even presidential candidates who have threatened filibusters in the past will be reluctant to kill it, he said.

''We'll see whether their hopes for the presidency are more important than the future of the country,'' Stevens said.

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