WASHINGTON – Four years after President Bush called for an overhaul of the nation's energy agenda (search), Congress presented him with a mammoth plan he said he was eager to sign — even though it costs twice as much as he wanted and won't open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling (search).
The Senate passed the mammoth legislation with broad bipartisan support, 74-26, ending years of congressional stalemate over energy. It will funnel billions of dollars to energy companies, including tax breaks and loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, clean coal technology and wind energy.
It had breezed through the House a day earlier.
Some senators said the bill, despite its broad sweep, does nothing to reduce the high cost of energy, especially at the gasoline pumps, and will not reduce the country's heavy reliance on oil imports. Its supporters maintained that in the long-term it will refocus the country's energy priorities and promote cleaner energy and more conservation.
"I look forward to signing it into law," Bush said in a statement, calling the legislation "critically important to our long-term national and economic security."
A task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney called for a new vision for the country's energy priorities four years ago. Congress came close to providing it but was stymied repeatedly by regional conflicts and environmental disputes.
The bill approved Friday represents the first broad overhaul of energy policies in 13 years.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who led Senate negotiations on the bill with the House, acknowledged that it will not lower gas prices or even affect oil imports in the short term.
Domenici maintained that the bill's myriad of measures — from tax breaks and loan guarantees to new appliance efficiency requirements — will benefit the nation "not tomorrow but for the next five or 10 years."
For the first time it would require utilities to comply with federal reliability standards for its electricity grid, instead of self-regulation. It's hoped that will reduce the likely repeat of a power blackout such as the one that struck the Midwest and Northeast in the summer of 2003.
For consumers, the bill would provide tax credits for buying gas-electric cars, make energy improvements in new and existing homes, and beginning in 2007 extend daylight-saving time by one month to save energy.
The bill's price tag — $12.3 billion over 10 years — is twice what the White House originally had put forward and raised caution among some senators.
"This bill digs us deeper into a budget black hole. ... The costs of this are staggering," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who tried to block the legislation on grounds that it violated the Senate's own budget rules. The effort failed 71-29.
The bill directs about $2.2 billion in new direct spending over the next five years. A private watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, estimated that if all of the bill's authorized programs actually received funding by Congress, the price tag would grow to $81 billion.
Despite the bill's vastness, covering 1,724 pages of legislative text, senators talked Friday of what they believe should be in the bill but isn't.
During two presidential campaigns and repeatedly over the last five years, Bush has talked of the need to tap the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska (search) for the billions of barrels of oil that it holds. He views it as key to reducing the country's reliance on foreign oil. It is not mentioned in the energy bill.
"If we put it in we wouldn't be here," Domenici told reporters.
Opponents to drilling in ANWR had vowed to filibuster legislation that includes such a provision. But Domenici said the issue would be addressed as part of the budget process in September in a procedure that is not subject to filibuster.
Some Democrats opposed the bill because they said it fails to do anything about the single biggest user oil — the gas-guzzling automobile — by not requiring automakers to improve the fuel efficiency of new cars.
Proposals to boost auto fuel economy repeatedly have been rejected in both the House and Senate. A measure that would have required the president to find ways to cut oil use by 1 million barrels a day by 2025 was scrapped after passing the Senate because of strong opposition from House Republicans. They argued it was a backdoor way toward new auto fuel economy requirements.
"This bill is literally a series of missed opportunities," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.