An odd couple and the energy bill

Two senators from New Mexico - and a new sense of urgency - buoy quest for new policy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After derailing in the past two congresses, the latest version of a national energy bill begins debate in the Senate today with a momentum that previous efforts missed - including new interest in taking action on climate change.

It's driven by months of sticker shock at US gas pumps, but also by a partnership forged by New Mexico's two senators - a Republican and Democrat who hold top positions on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Indeed, a key indicator that Congress may be ready to pass a bill - and not just rack up talking points for the next election cycle - is the sharp decline in the partisan rancor. At this time in the last energy bill cycle, both sides were firing off attacks. Now, the committee's top Democrats and Republicans are appearing together to support a bill that passed out of committee with only one dissenting vote.

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"We remain dedicated and committed to something that's not too usual around here: approaching this bill in a bipartisan manner," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R), chairman of the committee, in a joint appearance last week, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Jeff Bingaman - his fellow senator from New Mexico.

In itself, the comity doesn't ensure that president Bush will get to sign a bill. Many senators will want to weigh in on the bill, and any bill passed would face tough negotiations with the House.

The power of partnership

But the Domenici-Bingaman partnership is firing, at least, seems to be firing on all cylinders. For Senator Domenici, a longtime defender of nuclear power, closing deals is a honed art - and the energy bill is a legacy issue. Senator Bingaman is the body's leading authority on alternative energy sources. The pairing marks the first time that senators from the same state have been the chairman and ranking member of a committee.

After the November election, Senator Domenici told Democrats that he wanted to take another run at an energy bill, but this time, on a bipartisan basis. "We keep getting calls from outside groups asking if the glasnost is for real. It absolutely is," says Bill Wicker, the panel's Democratic spokesman.

In contrast to the House energy bill, which passed on April 21, the Senate bill includes a heavier emphasis on energy efficiency and use of alternative fuels. Amendments will be presented this week on global warming, offshore drilling, ethanol-based fuels, and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks or SUVs.

"The House bill offers billions in production incentives to an industry with record profits, yet cut its energy-efficiency provisions to two-thirds of what they were last year," says Kateri Callahan, president of Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, environmental and consumer groups. The Senate bill takes US energy policy "in the right direction."

Global warming suddenly a priority

Moreover, a new concern on global warming has surprised energy panel members.

Momentum is gaining for floor votes this week or next on measures to curb the carbon emissions that scientists see as linked to global warming. This comes amid mounting international pressure for US action on climate change - a move the Bush White House has opposed.

At the heart of the emerging consensus is a conviction by many lawmakers that curbs on carbon emissions are inevitable and that Congress would do well to get out front on the issue.

"It's becoming a political problem to the Republican Party, because they appear insensitive to a global concern that has implications even for national security policy," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

Last week, 11 national academies of science, including those of the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, China, and India, released a statement that added to the buzz in the Senate on climate change: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking prompt action."

"The ground is shifting on the politics of climate change faster than I would have thought," said Alex Flint, the energy panel's GOP staff director, at a press breakfast sponsored by The Energy Daily and BP America on Friday.

At least three rival plans related to climate change will be taken up as amendments to the energy bill, including those proposed by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, and Bingaman.

Pressure is also heating up from business groups eager to see a bill this session of Congress. On Monday, the National Association of Manufacturers released a study showing that the energy bill could save 700,000 jobs in manufacturing sector. "US manufacturers face the highest natural gas prices in the world," said former Gov. John Engler, NAM President, in a statement. "If we are serious about jobs, growth, and competing in the global marketplace, the Senate should take its foot off the brake and hit the accelerator on passing this energy bill."

Even if a Senate bill passes, as expected, it faces a tough conference with House negotiators. Last year's energy bill derailed over a dispute on whether to protect companies that produce methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive, from defective product lawsuits. The MTBE waiver is in the House bill, but will not be included in the Senate version. A climate change provision, should it pass the Senate, also faces tough going in the House.

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