Energy Bill: Headed for Filibuster?

Abstract: As Energy Policy Committee members work to deliver a final bill to the U.S. House and Senate, disagreements make approval far from certain.

Analysis: The House/Senate Committee marking up the Energy Policy Act of 2003 is working on the third draft of that legislation. Republican committee members, meeting in closed session, are reviewing proposed amendments, submitted by Democrats and some Republicans. The proposals will be incorporated--or not--as the voluntarily sequestered Republicans see fit. A third draft of the Energy Policy Act will emerge. Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee says this draft is intended to be final, ready for a yea/nay vote by the full House and Senate. But to Democrats and some Republicans with a strong energy independence or environmental bent, it will likely be far from satisfactory. In fact, it may be so bad in their eyes that they will kill it.

Still Far Apart
Wide differences still exist among legislators on issues such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), tax breaks, corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE), and use of renewable energy sources.

The Energy Policy Bill is no small item. It contains dozens of provisions, each lengthy and written in cumbersome legalese. The draft committee report runs 351 pages. As of midweek (October 1) the legislative website listed 27 recent amendments, including corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) mileage standards for automobiles, which Republicans have never included. Differences are many, yet two are getting the most attention as potential deal breakers: ANWR and inclusion of a renewable energy minimum baseline.

The ANWR provision to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve has been defeated in the Senate several times, but is back in again and being pushed hard by Republicans. Opponents of the provision find themselves receiving attractive tradeoff offers in exchange for a "yes" vote on the bill with ANWR in it. Local projects and tax breaks are among them.

One widely reported offer is a provision for up to $800 million in federal loan guarantees for a demonstration clean-coal power plant to be built in a depressed region of Minnesota. Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who has long opposed drilling in ANWR, said he would be hard pressed to vote against a bill with this provision in it, even if it includes ANWR.

Also in the revised bill are nearly $20 billion in tax breaks for utilities, oil companies, major oil companies, pipeline operators, and railroads. There is a $1.1 billion subsidy for an experimental nuclear power plant in Idaho.

Renewable Energy
The bill passed by the Senate this year included a requirement that electric utilities produce 10 percent of their power from renewable fuels. This provision ran into conflicts between Midwest corn growers and Gulf Coast oil refiners, and may be gone. But a mandate from Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) called for ethanol content in gasoline to more than double. Daschle has said he will attempt to block a final vote on the Energy Bill unless the ethanol provisions it contains are to his satisfaction.

Once it clears the House/Senate Conference Committee, the bill might be expected to have smooth sailing through the House and Senate, which have Republican majorities. But if opposition to ANWR still exists among a majority of Senators, the bill will likely be filibustered. So it appears that Domenici and Tauzen must make sure they have the 60 votes in the Senate to invoke cloture and shut off the filibuster. If they don't, they will have to report the bill out of the conference committee without ANWR in it. Domenici has said he will not risk the bill for ANWR. So now in the committee is the time for Domenici to try to gather the support needed to pass the bill

The Angry 53
And then Domenici and Tauzin last week ignored and angered 53 senators who asked for a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jim Jeffords (I-VT), as well as 50 other senators sent a letter urging the committee chairs to include an RPS in the energy bill conference report. In their letter, the senators said, "From the 53 signatures on this letter, and from votes on the Senate floor in the last Congress, it is clear that a majority of the Senate believes that forward-looking energy legislation must include a common sense, bipartisan RPS provision."

In the last Congress, the Senate included an RPS that would require 10 percent of electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2020. Repeated attempts to strike or weaken that provision failed by votes ranging from 56 to 58. So, an RPS was included in the bill the Senate passed by an 88 to 11 vote. Last July, Sen. Domenici proposed an electricity title that did not contain an RPS.

Now the senators have made it plain that a strong renewable portfolio standard is essential: "not just an important part, but an essential part," said a statement from Senator Bingaman who is also ranking minority member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

CAFE standards have never been part of the Republican-authored legislation, but have been included in past Senate legislation. Four of the 27 current amendments proposed this week advance this issue with specific goals for passenger automobiles of 28 mpg by 2005, 32 mpg by 2008, 36 mpg by 2012, and 40 mpg by 2014.

The ANWR provision and the RPS add up to political hardball. It's not clear that CAFE standards are a similar make-or-break issue, though they are important to many congressmen who see reduction in demand as an essential ingredient in energy policy. Of course, this is a complicated bill and this is politics where anything can happen, but it now appears that there are two main questions: Will Domenici and Tauzen risk losing the Energy Bill to a filibuster over ANWR, RPS, or both? And the flip side: Will the opponents of ANWR and proponents of an RPS launch a filibuster and get into a blame game with Republicans over who killed the energy bill in an election year?

In the middle of the week, Domenici announced postponement of the House/Senate conference until the third week of October because the energy tax package could not be made ready for Friday. He also issued a press release lauding Democrats for "significant contributions to the energy conference draft." It did not mention ANWR, RPS, or CAFE, so those issues are apparently still up in the air. But now we'll have to wait a few weeks to see.