Reporters Roundtable

Reporters look ahead to energy conference battles, summer agenda

As the Senate wraps up debate on the energy bill, E&E Daily reporters and editors discuss whether Congress can get the legislation to President Bush's desk this summer. Will differences between the House and Senate on renewable power, MTBE and other issues once again prevent final passage? What's next for climate change policy now that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) wants to hold hearings? Our reporters tackle these questions, and look at the congressional agenda for the coming months.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is E&E Daily senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn, E&E Daily editor Colin Sullivan and senior reporter Mary O'Driscoll. Thank you all for being here.

Mary O'Driscoll: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Colin Sullivan: Thanks.

Brian Stempeck: Mary, President Bush wants the energy bill done before the August recess. Is that going to happen as we're wrapping this up this week?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, things are looking good at least to finishing the energy bill this week. They may have to have a final vote next week because the New Mexico senators who are the managers of the energy bill are out in the state on Friday and so that could be the case. But with rumors about an MTBE settlement, that they would move MTBE's liability and all that kind of thing over to the highway bill, that might pave the way for a quick and easy conference with the House and the Senate, but I'm not going to say anything definitively on that.

Brian Stempeck: Looking ahead to the conference though, there's still a lot of battles they have to work out on, climate change and offshore drilling. What do you see as, I guess, the major barriers right now to finishing the bills?

Mary O'Driscoll: At this point, probably the renewable portfolio standards that, the 10 percent renewable portfolio standards that are in the Senate bill, probably some offshore language, because the House has been pretty anti-offshore drilling and so there's the inventory that's in the bill at this point. That could change. They could add more as the final votes on amendments come up. So those are two of the major things right now. There's also some electricity language, probably there'll be some PUHCA debate, but I think they'll probably end up taking out the Senate PUHCA language, that's the Public Utilities Holding Company Act.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

Mary O'Driscoll: And so that's probably some of the higher points on the debate at this point.

Brian Stempeck: Now what's your sense of timing? They have until the August recess to try to finish this. Are they even going to get started, I mean that's not very much time to go ahead and try to finish conference in just three or four weeks?

Mary O'Driscoll: Oh, yeah, and I don't think they can do it. I don't know, but I didn't think they'd get the energy bill through the Senate this quickly either, but some people are saying they could start the conference as early as next week. I don't think that's going to happen, but I think they'll probably start working on it in July and probably come back in September or October and finish it up.

Brian Stempeck: Colin, you've been following the energy bill for many years now. What needs to happen to get this bill finished? Do we need the same kind of event, like a major rise in oil prices or gas prices to push this through, to get Congress to act?

Colin Sullivan: First I want to talk about conference. I mean, I think donkeys are going to fly the before they're going to get through Congress before the August recess. This thing's going to bleed into the fall. The big thing, MTBE, Mary's right, if they do that in the highway bill, if that gets out of their way, then all they have to do is get done with ethanol, taxes, RPS, electricity. That stuff is much more doable than the MTBE problem. A crisis would help, but at the same time oil prices have been high for the last two years. They're at record high now. Natural gas prices have been high. Power prices have been high and still, we haven't seen a bill for the last four years. Critical mass has been there and it still hasn't happened.

Brian Stempeck: Crisis's have happened too. I mean there was a blackout a couple of years ago and that could actually spur an energy bill too.

Mary O'Driscoll: Yeah, I think that there's just much more desire on the part of lawmakers to get something done, show they can actually do something and amid the fights over judges and other nominations and that kind of thing. I think that if they, they see the energy bill is something that can actually get through and that might just kind of help push it through.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that the White House is going to get behind this a little bit more than we've seen in the past? I mean, basically the Social Security proposal isn't going too far, a lot of Bush initiatives aren't doing very well. He has said that energy is one of his top few priorities.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Brian Stempeck: Do you see them coming out with a bigger push on energy in the next few months?

Mary O'Driscoll: Oh probably and a bigger push, I mean how much bigger could it be than what President Bush has been doing all spring? I mean he's just been making almost a speech a day on energy. So he's been really active and really pushing on it, but when push comes to shove and when it really comes down to negotiating final deals and tax packages and that kind of thing, I think we'll see quite a bit of the White House.

Colin Sullivan: The other thing, it's still a rumor, but I'm wondering if this MTBE thing was generated by the White House? I wonder if they said, look, let's get this out of the way. This'll get the energy bill through. Let's put it on the highway bill, which in all honesty might scuttle the highway bill, but at least it won't scuttle the energy bill and they can just keep doing the reauthorization and extension language for the highway stuff. Get the energy bill though and then Bush can claim a domestic policy victory. So that might have been their idea. Joe Barton's the one that's behind it apparently, again we haven't confirmed it yet, lobbyist, the resolution that passed rumor, conjecture, but I see the White House fingerprints all over that.

Brian Stempeck: Darren, you've been tracking the climate change debate for the last week and the White House has pretty heavily involved with that as well. Give us kind of a recap of how this broke down between the Bingaman amendment, Domenici getting involved and how that would move forward.

Darren Samuelsohn: It's definitely hard to the White House's fingerprints on any piece of this, though clearly people have been saying all along that the White House has played a role. You know Vice President Cheney's office is right off the Senate floor and there have been people running in and out of it during the climate change debate this week. So clearly, the Democrats are saying that most recently the vice president had a hand in trying to remove some language from Jeff Bingaman's resolution that passed yesterday. A big deal for the climate change advocates, people who are trying to enact mandatory controls. They're saying that Vice President Cheney was trying to strip the word mandatory out of the resolution that passed and it didn't happen. So it's been a very eventful week. I mean it's hard to sort of pick things off. There's been four votes I believe so far this week and a lot of amendments, a lot of talk, probably more talk on global warming than I've ever seen in my four years covering Capitol Hill.

Brian Stempeck: One big piece of news is that Senator Domenici said he's going to have hearings in July on climate change.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Brian Stempeck: What does that say to you about like, I guess, the path forward for climate change even outside of the energy bill?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well this was something that he compromised on. I guess he had been flirting with actually supporting, cosponsoring an amendment from Jeff Bingaman that we had seen developed in the National Commission on Energy Policy last December when it was first announced. So Domenici was flirting with the idea and then he ultimately backed away this week from actually cosponsoring it. He said he'd hold hearings and now he's announced them for July, next month. It'll be interesting to see though because there's going to be a jurisdictional fight. Senator Inhofe is, you know, one of the loudest critics of putting global warming language into law, is going to assert jurisdiction over this thing, at least as it moves forward with a mark up. I mean I don't think that Senator Domenici will be able to try and mark up the bill and I'm already hearing that. I asked Senator Voinovich, who's the chairman of the Clean Air Climate Change Subcommittee yesterday about it. First he said, you know, I'm going to have to talk to Domenici about this. Then I tried to push him and ask him a little bit more and he declined to further comment on it. So, it's going to be a tug-of-war here.

Colin Sullivan: And for we environment and energy geeks that follow this all day, every day, this little fight between Inhofe and Domenici is really interesting. They got into a little bit of turf battle over ethanol --

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Colin Sullivan: And now we're seeing the same thing on climate. I think we're going to see that same thing going forward. So I'm wondering, Domenici and Inhofe do not agree on climate change even though Domenici did not end up supporting what Bingaman wanted to do. He's in the middle. He's between McCain and Inhofe when it comes to climate change. So I think we're seeing a little bit of a divertive there.

Darren Samuelsohn: Interestingly, in the McCain-Lieberman debate they split time up in terms of the opposition. Domenici sort of took time and Inhofe sort of took time and they were sort of arguing different things from the Republican perspectives. I mean Inhofe was questioning the science. He's been out there making speeches on the Senate floor for months questioning the science. Whereas Domenici is out there and he's saying we believe that global warming is happening and humans are causing the problem, but we don't know that we can actually do something about implementing a plan.

Colin Sullivan: And now for the first time the Senate agrees, not with Inhofe, but with Bingaman and with McCain. That's what the sense of the Senate does.

Brian Stempeck: That's what I thought was the interesting part of the debate is that you're not really seeing the questions of the science anymore. You're not seeing people argue over whether humans are causing or not, it's more about the effects on the economy. Where are you going to go from there? Now what about the White House getting involved in this? Do you see them, and also the House, the House hasn't shown any interest in doing anything on climate change, even something like a resolution.

Colin Sullivan: Sure.

Brian Stempeck: Is that something that can stay in the final bill or do you see the House willing to, basically trying to filibuster this bill over some kind of mandatory climate language?

Darren Samuelsohn: I was asking about that yesterday as the resolution debate was going forward. I mean can the House strip out a sense of the Senate resolution? And the initial reading I was getting, it kind of like, it got glazed eyes from the senators. I asked Inhofe about it and he didn't quite know. So it's a little bit unclear. I guess the House, some of the people that I was talking to over on the House side yesterday, I was talking to a senior House Republican leadership aide and he was saying it's going to be a very interesting conversation. They're going to be talking about climate change because the house had nothing in it on climate change, whereas the Senate's got this sense of the Senate resolution. I think that that stands. It definitely stands as the vote and it's already being talked about by environmental groups as the biggest vote and it's also being talked about by Democrats and even some Republicans that we were talking to yesterday are saying that this is the biggest vote in the 95 to nothing vote that came up during the Kyoto debate back in 1997.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: And critics of putting global warming mandates forward have often pointed to that 1997 vote. Now I think people are going to be able to point to the vote that happened this week from Senator Bingaman and say look, we actually now have a United States policy, at least in the Senate, going forward. It's going to be very interesting.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, I think it's also going to be interesting because it puts the environmentalists in an awkward position because they have no, this is about the biggest advocate they could ever get. I mean, Pete Domenici, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on your side saying global warming is a problem, we need to do something, but he's definitely going to be pushing nuclear power.

Colin Sullivan: Sure.

Mary O'Driscoll: And that's going to cause a real problem for environmentalists who really want to do something on global warming but don't want to do something on nuclear power. So it's going to be a very interesting development.

Brian Stempeck: That's been a big split in the environmental community so far. You have groups like NRDC and Environmental Defense with this big split about nuclear power. How do you see that being resolved as we move forward here? I mean a lot of people would just rationally speaking if you're going to look at these huge reductions in greenhouse gas as if you actually want to do something you do need to do something like nuclear power so it's a pretty good option.

Darren Samuelsohn: The environmentalist clearly had a role to play in this debate, on the McCain-Lieberman vote which lost four Democrats who voted for it in 2003, Feingold, Harkin, Boxer, the fourth one slips my mind right now, but they all said that it was nuclear --

Colin Sullivan: Dayton.

Darren Samuelsohn: It was Mark Dayton from Minnesota, thanks Colin. Always there, jumping in. I talked to a couple of them yesterday. I talked to Feingold and he said it was nuclear issues is what caused them not to vote for it. Boxer looked tortured on the Senate floor. She really wanted to vote for this thing, but she was just standing there back and forth. She didn't cast her vote for several minutes. I felt like a geek watching this thing going on, but you couldn't help it. It was enthralling to watch Boxer tortured on the floor and ultimately she voted no against the bill. But then at the same time Senator Mike DeWine gave me a really interesting interview after the debate where he said that he thinks that this thing going forward is going to pass. History is on this bill's side. So how is it going to play out? It's clearly, it has a tendency to pull away from some of those liberal Democrats to get some of these conservative Republicans, or moderate Republicans, I don't know.

Colin Sullivan: I think when it comes to the spin zone the environmental groups have sort of gained the high ground. I mean McCain and Lieberman all along have said, OK, we're trying to make incremental progress in the same way that McCain made incremental progress on campaign finance reform for years and years and years. McCain says at some point critical mass, which is what DeWine was saying and it looks like Domenici's getting there. I don't think it's going to happen with this president in the White House, but, the next president, I'm not saying a President McCain, but a President McCain of course would see a seat change.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Colin Sullivan: But I still think that environmentalists can claim incremental progress. So I think they walk away with a victory this week.

Brian Stempeck: Turning away from climate change, Mary. What are some of the things that you see as the big holes that aren't addressed in this bill? Fuel economy is clearly one of the things. What are some of the other topics that aren't addressed?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well there will probably be an effort to address fuel economy, but it's, the Senate right now is in a period where they've got a very short window where they, in just a few hours, where they can offer amendments and it's unclear if they will have been able to offer anything. But yeah, whether they offer it or not, CAFE is not going to be in the bill because there's really no momentum behind CAFE standards in the Senate, definitely no momentum behind it in the House. But that's something that a lot of people will point out, that if you want to reduce oil consumption and gasoline consumption, go to CAFE standards, improve the CAFE standards and work with the automakers to be able to retool and to be able to build better automobiles that can handle that kind of thing. So that's the big glaring hole at this point that just really isn't being addressed.

Darren Samuelsohn: Well especially at a time when you have GM and Ford and the U.S. automakers were at losing thousands of jobs.

Mary O'Driscoll: Exactly.

Darren Samuelsohn: They're being devalued, their bonds and all that kind of thing.

Mary O'Driscoll: Exactly and I hate to sound like a broken record, because I say this every chance I get, but everyone's talking about how we need to reduce oil prices and reduce gasoline prices and natural gas prices, this bill isn't going to do anything like that. This bill is such a long-term kind of thing. It's 10 or 15 years out where we're going to see any real noticeable difference in prices, because a lot of this is it's all studies and it's all programs to improve technology and that kind of thing. It's not that happen overnight and a lot of people maintain, whether you like it or not, they maintain that the fastest way to get to savings is through CAFE.

Colin Sullivan: CAFE's dead though. I mean it's sort of interesting that climate dominates the Senate floor debate, gets two days. CAFE is going to get about what, 45 minutes here?

Mary O'Driscoll: If they're lucky.

Colin Sullivan: If they're lucky if they get that. CAFE's going nowhere.

Brian Stempeck: When do you guys see, just moving past energy for a second, if we can all do that and I don't know if we can, but --

Mary O'Driscoll: What? Is there anything besides that?

Brian Stempeck: What do you see is happening for, what's the agenda for Congress for the rest of the summer? Appropriations process is coming up. What are the other priorities that Bush is going to be pushing?

Colin Sullivan: The Interior-EPA spending bill is coming up in the Senate next week. I have a little list here. I had to write this down. Sununu has a rider on the, I mean an amendment on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, under construction. Darren's covering the EPA side of that bill. We have no reporter covering these, so I'll defer to Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure, thank you. I appreciate you deferring. I'd say Senator Boxer will probably throw out some amendments on EPA. There'll be a pesticides amendment, trying to stop pesticide testing on humans, at least that's the case Boxer's going to be arguing, and then she'll be trying to increase spending for Superfund. Are the two things that we're definitely going to be watching for. I think the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, the spending on that, looks like it's been settled on the Senate side. It's not going to be as big of a fight as the House. It's going to be an issue in conference though because there's going to be about a $100 [million], $200 million difference between the two bills.

Colin Sullivan: Two of the other exciting acronyms we're following, the WRDA and ESA, Water Resources Development Act, might go to the House floor.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Colin Sullivan: House Resources Chairman Pombo is still pushing forward, still sort of building his case for ESA reform.

Brian Stempeck: All right. I think we're going to stop there. We're out of time. Darren Samuelsohn, Colin Sullivan, Mary O'Driscoll thanks a lot. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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