Tale of a Senate panel's one-week transformation

GOP's posters of caribou amid Alaska oil rigs will have to wait.

First come the little indignities. No more "Mr. Chairman" for the senator who wielded the gavel - and had the first and final word - in committees, where Congress does most of its legislative work.

If you're a Republican on the Appropriations Committee, you lose the office with the five-tier crystal chandeliers and Brumidi cupids on the ceiling. Instead, you get fluorescent lights, and your visitors now must cram into the corridor by the copy machine.

But these changes in protocol or space signal a deeper reality: When power shifts in Washington, there's also a change in whose ideas count.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - a group of 23 lawmakers who will help settle the coming debate over a national energy strategy.

For Republicans who controlled this panel until last week, this was to have been a month of triumph. They had been gearing up to push the president's energy plan through the Senate by July 4. First the tax cut, then education, then the most comprehensive energy reform since the Reagan era. That was the plan.

Then came the defection of GOP Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont. At once, the Senate leadership flipped - from the top right down through committee clerks, who swapped majority and minority titles.

Instead of energy, the new Democratic leadership now will take up legislation on a patients' bill of rights. Energy moves off the fast track. And a more protracted process of hearings and consensus building begins.

"We were prepared to take up energy as the next major piece of legislation," laments Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, outgoing chairman. "We've had 24 hearings and 164 witnesses [since January]. I wanted a comprehensive bill by the July 4 recess."

The Republican plan focused on finding ways to increase energy production, including oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and increasing the supply of nuclear power. To make their point, committee staff had even developed posters of grizzlies walking alongside pipelines, caribou wandering near drilling rigs, and fur-clad children living on the ANWR site. (If people live alongside animals on a wildlife refuge, they planned to argue, why not drilling rigs?)

But the new Democratic leadership has already said that the proposal to drill in ANWR is dead on arrival. So is any dramatic expansion in nuclear power, a special concern of Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, the No. 2 Democrat, who opposes efforts to put a nuclear-waste repository in his state.

"So, where is the energy going to come from? ... If you don't increase supply, you're just playing games," Senator Stevens says.

Democrats say the new committee leadership - and the delay in bringing an energy bill to the floor - will result in a more balanced piece of legislation.

"There is a very close relation between energy and climate change, and whatever we propose ... should be done with an eye to how it relates to climate change," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, the new committee chairman. "The issue is sufficiently complicated and important that we ought to take the time to do it as carefully as we can."

His committee staff already notices the difference that comes with majority status. "My phone calls are returned a little quicker than they were before," says Bill Wicker, Democratic committee spokesman. Democrats can now control the committee agenda and website. They schedule hearings and line up witnesses. Their office becomes the first stop for lobbyists.

The energy panel is, in fact, more bipartisan than most Senate committees. Despite big differences in their style and temperament, Bingaman and Murkowski are genial colleagues. Republicans applaud Bingaman, for example, for braving minus-75-degree cold to visit ANWR with Murkowski this spring, despite his opposition to drilling there. No committee gets more of its bills through Congress.

For these two men, there was no scrapping over office space when the Senate changed hands. Everyone just stayed put. (The committee staff had already packed up their offices twice in the past six months to accommodate renovations in the Dirksen Senate office building, and no one wanted another move.) Nor were there fights about lost privileges or not-so-subtle efforts to subvert the new majority staff.

But their cooperation will be tested, as the energy committee takes up legislation ranging from public lands to a sweeping rewrite of the US energy strategy.

Already, Democrats feel pressure to help ease the energy crunch in California. Bingaman wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to regulate the industry more aggressively if rates are "unjust and unreasonable." If FERC does not act, such a law could pass out of committee by July 4, he says. Murkowski, in his final press conference as committee chair, said he could support a cap on wholesale prices only if it gives investors a profit margin sufficient to attract new power generation.

Meanwhile, the Republicans aren't yet ready to retire their caribou posters. "Just because we no longer have the chairmanship doesn't mean we lose responsibility to solve the energy problem," says David Woodruff, GOP communications director.

Privately, Democrats and Republicans on the panel use the same metaphor for new responsibilities that come with a shift in status: "It's easier to throw a hand grenade than to catch one."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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