Republicans Gamble on Democrats’ Energy Bill

Published September 1, 2003

Long-awaited national energy legislation surmounted a difficult obstacle on July 31 when Senate Republicans relented to Democratic opposition and agreed to pass legislation identical to last year’s Democrat-written bill. The measure passed by an 84-14 vote.

A Republican-controlled joint House-Senate committee will now hammer out a compromise between the Senate legislation and the House energy bill passed in April and preferred by the Republicans. After a compromise bill is created, it must be approved by the full House and full Senate, and survive a threatened Democratic filibuster, before it can be submitted to President George W. Bush.

Before the 2002 elections, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed an energy bill weighted heavily in favor of conservation at the expense of affordable energy. The Democratic bill mandated a wide range of energy conservation programs and renewable energy subsidies while giving short shrift to more efficient fossil fuel and nuclear energy.

This year, after taking control of the Senate, Republicans had hoped to pass more balanced legislation aimed at making energy more affordable rather than more scarce. Leading up to the August congressional recess, however, Republicans realized Democrats had prepared as many as 100 amendments to offer on the Senate floor to stall a vote on the Republican plan. Rather than wait until after the August recess to attempt to pass its energy bill, the Republican leadership instead decided to gamble that the House-Senate conference would resolve most issues in favor of the House bill.

“They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse–the Democratic energy bill we passed last year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota). “We’d much rather go into conference with a Democratic vehicle than what was going to pass at the end of this debate as the Republican bill.”

“In our fondest dreams, we never thought we’d be able to pass a Democratic bill in a Republican Congress,” Daschle added.

But Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) was confident the gambit would ultimately work in the Republicans’ favor. “The reason I’m happy is because I’ll be rewriting that bill,” said Domenici. “We’ll write a substantially different bill.”

Domenici and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana) had already begun discussing how to shape the final bill in the joint committee.

“I’d much prefer to see the Republican bill than the bill we saw last year,” Tauzin said. “But obviously if that’s the best the Senate can do, at least we can get it to conference. We’re running out of time.”

Not all Republicans were happy with the developments. Some blamed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) for allowing other matters such as judicial appointments to sidetrack energy legislation until it was too late for Republicans to endure the expected Democratic stalling tactics.

“Domenici is not happy with how Frist has handled this the last couple days,” a senior Republican Senate aide told the Washington Times. “A lot of people are not happy about how Frist has handled this.”

Greenhouse Gas Concessions

One important price the Republican leadership paid for getting the Democrats to drop their plans to stall the legislation was agreeing to allow John McCain (R-Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut) to bring the climate change debate to the full Senate floor later this Fall.

McCain and Lieberman favor strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions that would create steep hikes in energy prices without alleviating the global warming predicted by some government scientists and liberal activist groups. McCain and Lieberman have been promised the opportunity to present a stand-alone bill.

“While the leadership in the House was able to keep their version of the energy bill from being loaded with alarmist global warming amendments, there is going to be a great deal of pressure from certain Senators to include unscientific, anti-energy proposals to placate certain environmental pressure groups,” said Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Higher CAFE Rejected

The Republican leadership did prevail in derailing an attempt to require enormous gains in sport utility vehicle fuel economy that would have likely regulated the vehicles out of existence.

Current law requires that SUVs, minivans, and light trucks average 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) sponsored a proposal to raise the SUV fuel economy requirement to 40 miles per gallon by 2015. Even the smallest passenger cars rarely get 40 miles to the gallon.

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) argued Americans would prefer not to drive SUVs, which accounted for 50 percent of automobile sales last year, and would rather drive small cars. “While Americans like the convenience of an SUV, they certainly don’t like spending $40 or $50 filling the tank once or twice a week. Americans want fuel-efficient automobiles, which save them money at the pump.”

“This is still America, isn’t it?” responded Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi). “Is Congress going to mandate that people drive these things?” he said, pointing to a golf cart-sized prop. “In the back roads of my state, that will get you killed,” Lott said. “Don’t make the American people drive this little runt of a car.”

The proposed fuel restrictions also faced the opposition of the United Auto Workers union which, according to Senator George Allen (R-Virginia), estimated a federal law requiring a one-mile-per-gallon increase in fuel efficiency would eliminate 10 percent of the automobile workforce.

The SUV fuel economy proposal “would have a devastating impact on the automobile industry,” observed Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.

Ultimately, Democrats from auto-producing states in the Midwest joined Republicans in rejecting the Durbin measure by a vote of 65 to 32. In its place, the Senate agreed to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] deference in recommending new fuel economy standards.

“Setting fuel economy standards is complicated,” said Missouri Republican Senator Christopher Bond. “The [NHTSA] will use science and technology” to establish CAFE standards, “not force people into smaller cars.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected]