Reporters Roundtable

E&E Daily reporters look at roadblocks to energy legislation this year

As the mid-term elections approach, members of Congress are looking to secure their seats for another term. But will the focus on the mid-term elections derail major legislation from moving through the House and Senate this year? During today's OnPoint, E&E reporters weigh in on how the upcoming campaigns could affect several key issues, including chemical security proposals, climate change legislation, the nuclear agreement between the United States and India, and energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today for a reporters roundtable on congressional agenda are E&E reporters Alex Kaplun, Darren Samuelsohn and Mary O'Driscoll. Thanks for being here.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: Darren, let's start with the hot button issue of climate change. There is a climate change summit next week. Tell us what it's all about.

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman have got together about 35 of some of the leading minds, I guess you could say, on the issue of climate change and the barriers to moving legislation through. Understand legislation is not going to move this year. That's what Senator Domenici has said. So what you're going to hear are basically ideas, topics, discussion about how you could incorporate a United States policy with the rest of the world, how you could get developing nations involved, which industries you want to regulate and then there's going to be a lot of other topics that are going to be on the table. And I would expect to see some of the leading industry people, some of the leading environmental people. You're probably going to get some academics there on the panel, too. We don't know who the panel is going to be yet though.

Monica Trauzzi: You've also been following the recent NSR decision. Talk about that. What's the congressional reaction?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, a congressional reaction is pretty obvious. I mean, Senator Jim Jeffords, who used to be the chairman of the committee -- now he's the ranking member of the Senate EPW committee -- he blasted the Bush administration. He said these rules have been illegal all along. Senator Inhofe on the other hand had said, you know, we need to move NSR reform through Congress. Now I don't think that Senator Inhofe has the votes and his staff has acknowledged as well that they don't have the votes to move anything through the Senate. They tried to move something through in the House last summer, and again, that didn't move. They ended up having to strip that out before it even came to the House floor it was so controversial. So I don't expect to see Congress move anything NSR related this year, even though you're going to hear a push from the White House on trying to move something forward.

Monica Trauzzi: Bill Wareham's nomination hearing is right around the corner. How is the NSR decision playing into that?

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, I think that the NSR issue is one of the most controversial things that the Bush administration did in the first five years that they've been in office. Bill Wareham was one of the top legal minds behind the EPA plan. And I'm sure he's going to be questioned on it. He's going to be questioned on the fact that it was overturned and you're probably going to see some questions about what is EPA going to do going forward? Which will be interesting, because really EPA has not really given us much of an indication what they're going to do in light of this court decision.

Monica Trauzzi: Mary, let's switch gears. Some members of Congress are uneasy about the India-U.S. nuclear deal. It's set to be discussed in Congress. What can we expect?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, they're doing some preliminary hearings now. This week there's some closed-door hearings and some discussion about it. But there's a lot of concern about what this is going to mean for nonproliferation. That if you're opening up the door for India, which never signed a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and you're opening up a special carve-out for them, what's going to keep other countries that didn't sign the treaty from doing the same thing? And there's a lot of concern on that. And then there's also a concern about the process question. That the legislation that would implement any kind of a deal was introduced at the administration's request, but it was introduced into Congress before they left for the last break. And the thing is is that it just -- what happens is that it sets up the process that the Bush administration will be able to further negotiate the real specifics of the deal. But that it's something that Congress doesn't necessarily have to approve. Congress's approval of this kind of all-encompassing legislation -- that's very general, very broad, doesn't get into any specifics -- might be their only way of being able to approve it. And there's a lot of unease about that on the Hill. That it just opens the door a little bit too much for the White House to really kind of take control of this. So there's probably going to be, over the course of the next few weeks, probably months, a lot of discussion about it. Congress is probably going to try to tweak it a bit, to try to put some of their own opinions and their own priorities into this deal in some way, shape or form. But you know the people are lining up for and against it. And a lot of people are really on the fence about it, but there's quite a bit of unease about it as well.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about the politics behind the deal. What kind of reactions did you guys hear on the Hill?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, there's everything from people supporting it because they want to see this happen. India is the world's oldest, long-standing democracy and the biggest democracy in the world. And that there's a lot of feeling that, let's help them along. Our country has had a long and very fruitful relationship with that country. But others are afraid that India has done a lot of nuclear testing, that this agreement doesn't bring in all of the reactors. It doesn't bring in any of the weapons reactors that they have under the international inspections. And so there's a lot of unease about that. It's interesting, you've got people from -- you know, former Senator Sam Nunn, he's no wishy-washy person when it comes to any of these kinds of things. And he's expressed some reservations about it as well. So that should lend quite a bit of credence to the opponent's arguments.

Monica Trauzzi: How does the partnership play into the GNEP program?

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, that's interesting because the GNEP program, which is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, is something where the United States would share nuclear technology with other countries, with developing nations, to try to expand the use of nuclear power. And so there's some feeling that this might be kind of the first step into implementing that. And that this is on a fast-track and GNEP itself is on a fast track. The Energy Department has already issued a notice that they're looking to do an EIS on GNEP itself. And so it's very -- you know, everything is on a pretty fast track and so people are trying to figure out what all of this means. Is India going to be kind of the first test of a GNEP style kind of a partnership? And what does this mean as far as proliferation around the world? A lot of real queasy feelings about proliferation issues.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, the Bush administration has a new found push for chemical security now. How does the Bush plan compare to Senator Collins' plan?

Alex Kaplun: They're very close. As you know, [Homeland Security] Secretary Michael Chertoff came out about a week ago and really pushed publicly for boosting chemical security. What the Bush administration wants is to kind of set up a broad template of requirements for chemicals facilities and then have either the federal government or independent auditor review plans from individual facilities and actually give the power to the federal government to order facilities to shut down if they don't meet those requirements. And that's very close to what Senator Collins has put on the table. Her plan is a little different in some key areas, but it's kind of the broad basic template. From what I understand there's going to be a House version introduced that's very similar to specifically what the White House wants. And really the two -- all three plans are going to be so similar that it should be fairly easy to work out.

Monica Trauzzi: So can we assume that this is a revival of the chemical security push? Is something actually going to move in Congress this time?

Alex Kaplun: I mean, they're as close as they've ever been because you have the Senate is very interested, you have the administration that's very interested and the chemical industry has kind of gone along with what the White House wants. You know, the House leadership, which has kind of been the big roadblock for this, is still quiet on this issue. But if you have all of those other parts in agreement, something could be worked out. I mean, the big issue right now is timing. I've talked to staff on votes kind of relevant to committees in the House and the Senate and they say, well, "we're optimistic that we could have a mark up and get something done this year. But we don't know." I mean, the Senate Homeland committee, for example, is also kind of the lead committee in lobbying reform and hurricane Katrina oversight. So they can just get anything done in terms of how the days are left in this calendar in SVC.

Monica Trauzzi: Some news about how ANWR is going to play into the House budget?

Mary O'Driscoll: It's very interesting. The House budget really doesn't include anything for ANWR and so opposed to what the Senate has already done, so it's going to be very interesting to see how that plays out over the course of the rest of this year. You know it's always a cliffhanger when it comes to ANWR discussions. The House could pass a budget that doesn't have it, but you never know what's going to happen during the conference. So it's going to be very interesting to watch. So the House's first worry now is that ANWR is not part of it, but that's not the final word by any stretch.

Monica Trauzzi: Many of the projects Congress is working on are still very much up in the air. How much can we actually expect to get done in this election year? Who's going to be trying to stand at the radar? Who's going to make a big huff and puff this year?

Darren Samuelsohn: I think presidentially you've got a lot of senators who are potential presidential candidates, so they're slowly starting to make themselves known in terms of their issues. You know we found Senator McCain talking about global warming the other day. You know that's an interesting thing for Senator McCain to be talking about at this point in time in his campaign. But I think on a lot of the environmental stuff you're not going to be seeing a lot of action. I think you're going to hear a lot of oversight talk. In Senator Inhofe's committee, that's a paralyzed committee right now. Everything in that committee has kind of run into these 9-9 deadlocks from endangered species, which is -- there hasn't been a vote on that, but that looks like where that would be headed. So the Clear Skies debate to the refinery debate from last year, everything in that Senate Environment and Public Works committee at least has been deadlocked.

Mary O'Driscoll: And I think too, getting back to the refinery issue too, I think you might -- as gas pump prices are up, as energy becomes a little bit more of a focus with the gasoline prices and with oil prices, that you're going to see more call, more push for doing something, even if it's just a fig leaf, on energy. There is going to be some need for doing something political on energy probably before the summer break, because then, you know, after the break in summer they're going to be so focused on appropriations. But I really think we'll probably see something on energy, whether it actually means anything is debatable, but we'll probably see something on energy.

Alex Kaplun: I also think if you can just look at the calendar and kind of look at it realistically, there's just not all whole lot of time left for them. Congress is back for two weeks and then they go on a two week break. There's that long break in August. They're set to adjourn in early October, which they never do, but I mean within a couple weeks of the election everyone is going to want to go home. So they're not going to stay in here until late October to hear the appropriation bills budget, you know there's some kind of purely political issues that the Republicans want to get out there, gay marriage issue, things like that. Between all of those things there's just not a lot of floor time, not a lot of committee time left.

Mary O'Driscoll: Is anybody saying the L word, lame-duck session yet?

Monica Trauzzi: Well, we'll have to wait and see if that actually happens. Thanks guys for joining us. This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for being here.

[End of Audio]



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