WASHINGTON – Under fire for months for refusing to consider the president's energy policy, Democrats finally unveiled their alternative Wednesday. To no one's surprise, it excludes the most controversial element of the GOP energy plan: drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In fact, in announcing the Democratic plan, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., went so far as to suggest Republicans could put energy legislation in jeopardy if they continue to insist that the ANWR provision be debated.
"I hope those who feel as strongly as they do about drilling in ANWR would not hold all of energy hostage on that issue. That's truly, I think, the most dangerous question we will be facing as we consider whether or not we can address energy policy early next year," Daschle said Wednesday.
Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, say they want a comprehensive energy bill that includes drilling in ANWR and that they are willing to bottle up other legislation with amendments to get it passed. One such effort, however, failed earlier in the week.
Daschle said that while he has made a commitment to take up energy legislation on the floor "before the Founder's Day recess" there is no way to predict what "unforeseen circumstances could come up" in those months to delay the measures being voted on the floor. Founder's Day recess falls between late January and early February.
Daschle, who said emergency legislation resulting from Sept. 11 prevented the Senate from addressing other issues before Congress adjourns for the year, was able to squeeze some unrelated issues — like a railroad retirement package — onto the Senate schedule.
But the Republican energy plan — developed in the early summer with the help of an energy task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney, and passed by the House Aug. 2 — has been put off because of its divisive ANWR drilling provisions.
Republicans want to consider drilling on a couple thousand acres of ANWR land, which is thought to have billions of barrels of oil, in order to reduce foreign oil dependence. Democrats, however, argue that drilling will destroy the federally-protected land and endanger its wildlife.
Instead, Democrats proposed Wednesday an energy plan that Daschle argues will "strengthen the economy, protect the environment and provide energy security for decades to come."
That plan emphasizes conservation and renewable energy research to reduce consumption on natural resources.
Seeking to satisfy a wide range of interests, the bill includes:
— A renewable fuels requirement for gasoline, aimed at gaining farmers' support because it would assure continued growth of the ethanol industry. Refiners would have to use at least 5 billion gallons of ethanol, triple today's production, by 2012.
— A ban on use of MTBE as a gasoline clean-air additive. More and more states have begun to phase it out because of concerns that it pollutes the water.
— Sharp increases in federal research into energy efficiency programs as well as tougher standards than the Bush administration has embraced for home central air conditioners.
— Loan guarantees of up to $8 billion for construction of a $20 billion pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska's North Slope.
— A more than doubling of federal funds to help poor people pay energy bills to $4.4 billion.
— Broader power to federal regulators to ensure reliability of the nation's electricity grids.
— States no longer would be tied to a federal oxygenate requirement for gasoline, a benefit to oil refiners that argue they can blend gasoline without an oxygenate and still meet clean air goals.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said that one of the goals for Democrats is to reduce growth and demand for oil and increase efficiency in the way oil is used in cars, trucks and SUV's. Bingaman said new technology — such as hybrid and electric engines — should be explored.
Bingaman also denied that drilling in ANWR will reduce the demand for oil coming from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which produces 55 percent of U.S. oil.
"I don't think there are any credible estimates that drilling in ANWR will eliminate that dependence" on oil produced by OPEC, he said.
He did not discount continued drilling in the lower 48, the Rocky Mountain region, the Gulf Coast and the North Slope of Alaska.
Despite the differences, the Democratic proposal does include some issues near and dear to the Republicans and the White House.
"It addresses virtually all of the issues that the presidential task force identified earlier this year as needing attention," said Senate Energy Commission chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.D. "As we deal with our energy challenges, this should not be partisan as an issue."
But Republicans say Democrats are doing nothing but playing politics by knuckling under special interests and ignoring energy needs.
"What this is really all about is a charade, a charade as a consequence of the extreme zealous environmental groups that are opposed to an energy bill and opposed to opening up ANWR," Murkowski said.
Though debate won't come up until January at the earliest, Daschle said that if Republicans do try to include ANWR in an energy package, he would prevent it from coming to a vote for final passage.
Fox News' Julie Asher and Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.