WASHINGTON – For three years Congress has struggled to put together a new national energy policy, only to fail repeatedly because of disagreements that have little to do with what worries Americans today - record high gasoline prices and the government's inability to counter the OPEC (search) oil cartel.
The White House renewed its call Wednesday for Congress to act amid growing concern that high energy costs and the specter of an invincible OPEC could hurt President Bush's re-election bid.
When asked how the president intended to deal with the rising gasoline prices and OPEC's tightening of the oil spigot, White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated a single theme: Get Congress to pass energy legislation.
"We need a comprehensive national energy policy (search) so that we don't keep going from one crisis to the next," McClellan said in response to the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut oil production by 4 percent, despite administration efforts to persuade OPEC not to do so.
If Congress had acted "we wouldn't be in this mess," McClellan said.
In 2000, candidate Bush had pledged a get-tough response to force OPEC to retreat when it cut production, which puts upward pressure on oil prices.
On Wednesday, McClellan said the administration would "stay in close contact with major producers from around the world to discuss these issues and make sure our views are known." He said that oil prices should be set by the market.
McClellan blamed Democrats for blocking energy legislation and suggested that if Republicans had gotten their way, a new national energy policy would be in place today to keep gasoline prices down and the OPEC oil cartel in check.
The White House and the Bush re-election campaign also went after Democratic Sen. John Kerry, contending that the party's presumptive nominee for president would raise gas taxes.
Democrats said the energy bills that came close to being enacted into law in both 2002 and again last year contained little that would reduce America's dependence on OPEC oil and virtually nothing that would assure an end to the volatility of gasoline prices.
And they said Republicans had been as much to blame for the stalemate on energy as anyone else. Republican senators who objected to the high cost of a largely GOP-crafted energy bill helped kill the legislation in the Senate late last year.
Even if the bill had passed, would it have helped?
"I don't think there's anything in the pending energy bill that would have effect on gas prices in the short term at all, or affect them substantially in the long-term either," Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee, said in an interview Wednesday.
He said the same was true in legislation passed by the Senate in 2002 when Democrats were in control.
The bill that's now before Congress and crafted essentially by the GOP majority does nothing to increase refining capacity, ease problems with so-called boutique fuels or reduce oil imports, Bingaman said.
Supporters of the bill say it would lead to a diversity of energy sources, boosting production of coal, natural gas and renewables. But cars and trucks depend on oil, and the bill does nothing to increase automobile fuel economy or to get more domestic oil.
Proposals to increase fuel economy were defeated repeatedly and a Bush administration proposal to tap oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search) also quickly became a non-issue because of strong opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate. While ANWR represents the biggest untapped U.S. oil resource, a recent Energy Department study acknowledged its production would only modestly slow the growth of imports.
Another report by the DOE's Energy Information Administration (search) recently concluded that the energy bill Congress came close to passing last year would result in no significant increase in domestic oil production and reduce oil imports - currently 9.8 million barrels a day - by a scant 100,000 barrels a day by 2010. After that imports would increase.
And, according to the EIA analysis, it would add to the overall cost of gasoline by 3 cents a gallon - and increases of as much as 8 cents a gallon in some parts of the country - by 2015 because of the wider use of the corn-based additive ethanol (search) and a phaseout of another additive, MTBE (search).
The ethanol industry disputes the figures and has insisted that wider use of its additive would not cause higher gasoline prices.
While the White House is blaming Democrats for blocking energy legislation, such legislation might have passed last year had it not been for two issues involving Republicans.
There was strong opposition from a group of GOP senators who objected to the measure's $31 billion price tag over 10 years, a cost that ballooned as programs were added to attract support.
And Senate Democrats objected to a giving the makers of the MTBE gasoline additive protection against product liability lawsuits. Democratic leaders said they could deliver the votes for the bill if the MTBE provision were scrapped. But House Republicans - especially Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Rep. Joe Barton, both of Texas - refused to budge on the issue.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the bill's Senate floor leader, has scaled back its cost and removed the MTBE provision, hoping to get the bill through the Senate this year. But Barton, now chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says any bill that passes the House must include the MTBE waiver.