In Congress, all roads lead to a conference room

A split House and Senate increasingly send disputed bills to a joint committee. The saga of the energy bill.

The surprise ending to last week's Senate energy debate could not have been scripted. With recess looming and recriminations already flying, Republicans punted their own version of the bill and picked up the one Democrats passed in the last Congress.

"It's the most incredible thing I've ever seen in the Senate: Republicans pass a Democratic bill and both sides declare victory," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana.

While the route is unprecedented, the outcome is not. It means that the shape of the new national energy strategy, like pending Medicare reform and the Bush tax cuts, will be worked out in a small room by Senate and House conferees, often with Democrats barely represented, if at all.

The conference is what critics call "the third house" of Congress, and it's becoming the defining venue of the closely divided 108th Congress. While the Senate and House can vote down the results a conference compromise, it doesn't often happen. Moreover, there's nothing in the rules that says that this conference must somehow split the difference between Senate and House versions of a bill.

As former President Ronald Reagan once quipped: "If an orange and an apple went into conference consultations, it might come out a pear."

The energy bill could emerge as Exhibit A for this un-principle. The sprawling bill had already endured 18 days of acrimonious, often-derailed debate. Scores of amendments were pending, and the toughest issues, such as a new electricity policy, were just hitting the floor when a spat broke out over who was to blame for what appeared a certain failure to pass an energy bill before the recess.

Some, including many Republicans, blamed the novice majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, for scheduling too much at once: an energy bill, a new trade pact with Singapore and Chile, and controversial judicial nominations. Mr. Frist accused the Democrats of "obstruction."

Then, Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota made the offer no one was expected to accept: "If our Republican colleagues really wanted to get a bill, what would have been wrong with taking the bill that 88 of us voted for last year and starting with that."

What, indeed. It took the shrewdest minds on the GOP side of the aisle a few minutes to recognize the opportunity buried in this taunt. Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who was managing the bill for Republicans, saw it first. He whispered to the majority leader: Take the offer. While members on both sides of the aisle were still reeling, Republicans took a break to discuss the new possibilities.

The hard part was getting a bill out of the Senate. Once in conference, he and Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, the energy chairman on the House side, could rewrite it from top to bottom, Mr. Domenici said. The result would be a "Bush-Domenici-Tauzin bill."

For the next four hours, Republicans including Vice President Dick Cheney worked over this odd endgame with other GOP senators. "Even though it might give the Democrats a short-term thing to brag about, in the end it will be our bill," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the majority whip. "If they want to filibuster a conference report on energy or Medicare reform and prescription drugs, they can explain that to the American people, if they like," he added.

Republicans agreed. Democrats now had an offer - their own - that they could not refuse, and the bill passed, 84 to 14.

"Senate Democrats could not have asked for a better outcome," says Bill Wicker, the Democratic spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It's our work product going into conference." The 2002 Democratic energy bill includes a $20.6 billion package of tax breaks for greater energy production, a new standard for increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, and new requirements to report greenhouse gas emissions. It does not include the subsidies for the nuclear industry in the Domenici bill.

ALL that will be revisited in conference, however. "The final bill will look more like what I produced in committee this spring than the bill we just passed," said Senator Domenici in a press release after the vote.

The only participants not claiming victory after Friday's Senate vote were environmental groups, which called the vote a "huge step backward." "Now, a Republican-led conference committee anticipates reconvening in September to push forward a retrograde energy bill filled with goodies for all their campaign contributors," says Lisa Gue, a policy analyst on the environment for Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

In the remarks on the floor of the Senate as the chamber adjourned, Mark Dayton (D) of Minnesota protested an item slipped into a recent conference report that prohibited federal funds from being used for noise abatement near the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport - a request by a lobbyist that had been in neither the House nor the Senate version of the bill.

"The conference committees recently have taken a very dangerous turn," he said. Not only are Democratic conferees not consulted in the deliberations, they are "not even allowed in the meetings where these deliberations and decisions are being made."

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