WASHINGTON – While energy prices across the spectrum — from gasoline at the pump to heating oil, natural gas and crude oil — have soared, the political steam in Congress to enact a new national energy agenda has cooled with the winter frost.
The Bush administration is pressing congressional Republicans to scale back a bloated $31 billion energy bill, arguing it has no chance to pass this year unless it is stripped of billions of dollars in direct spending and tax breaks.
The bill's supporters, along with the White House, are trying to resuscitate the legislation, which was shelved in November after Senate leaders were two votes short of overcoming a Democratic-led filibuster. The House approved it.
Since then, opposition to the bill's cost — about $23 billion in tax breaks and another $8 billion in spending — has grown, especially among some Senate Republicans, who argue it would result in billions of dollars in spending above the congressional budget ceiling.
Sen. Pete Domenici (search), R-N.M., who chaired the House-Senate conference that produced the bill, acknowledged that its price tag needs to be re-examined to get the bill through.
"I am confident we can nail down the votes," he said. "We're only two votes down."
But slashing programs and tax benefits that are the product of months of negotiations among lawmakers may be harder than expected.
The bill's cost ballooned from less than $20 billion to $31 billion largely because lawmakers wrangled concessions and programs in return for their support. Abandoning those agreements by chipping away at the bill could lose as many supporters as it gains, several GOP senators conceded.
"Some of my colleagues have made it clear that in order to get their support we have to include certain things in the bill," said Domenici. He said as the bill was being assembled, fellow lawmakers wanting items in the bill "had me over a barrel" because "I needed every vote."
Sen. Charles Grassley (search), R-Iowa, who led the Senate negotiations on the bill's tax package, said there are intense discussions under way on where to make cuts. But he said he hasn't signed off on any proposals yet because "we have to maintain a well balanced bill" or lose support.
The White House, which always has complained about the size of the tax breaks, also has sent mixed signals.
President Bush, who in the past called energy legislation a matter of national and economic security and one of his top domestic priorities, included just a single sentence in his State of the Union address last week, stopping short of calling for passage of the broad-based bill before the Congress.
Some energy analysts saw it as confirmation of tepid support within the administration for the bill. "The priority assigned to this issue has faded," Christine Tezak, an energy analyst for Charles Schwab's Washington Research Group, concluded in a recent report to clients.
Senate Democrats maintain the bill could have passed last November if it were not for one provision.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) of Texas had insisted that the bill include protection for the manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from product liability lawsuits. MTBE is being phased out, but its makers, mostly in Texas, are faced with the threat of lawsuits because the additive has contaminated drinking water in many states.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., says he could deliver six more votes for the bill if the MTBE provision were removed. House Republicans so far have refused to budge, though. DeLay views help to the MTBE industry as part of a compromise in which the House agreed to a Senate proposal that would greatly expand the use of another gasoline additive, corn-based ethanol, a product important to farm states and their lawmakers.
DeLay "overplayed his hand by putting the MTBE issue in," says Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. "If it were not for that, the energy bill would have passed."
Meanwhile, some senators already have begun to push for piecemeal legislation, fearing that a compromise on a broad, comprehensive energy bill will not pass anytime soon.
"More than five months after the worst blackout in our history, Congress has yet to create mandatory, enforceable electricity reliability standards," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y.
She and three other Democrats introduced a bill to set standards for the power grid, similar to a key provision in the stalled energy legislation aimed at helping prevent a blackout, such as the one that occurred last year in the Northeast.
There also is talk of putting some ethanol provisions in an upcoming transportation bill.
Domenici vows to fight such legislation. "I absolutely will not consider breaking the (energy) bill up," he said.