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Energy Measure Tested Domenici

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
    WASHINGTON— A few hours after Sen. Pete Domenici watched his energy bill crash and burn on the Senate floor last week, he slipped out of the Capitol and took his wife, Nancy, to dinner.
    They went to a quiet restaurant near their Capitol Hill home and discussed what had gone wrong.
    They had a lot to talk about.
    Just four days earlier, on Nov. 18, the House had passed the national energy policy legislation overwhelmingly and sent it over to the Senate. It appeared to be headed for certain passage there, too.
    But the four days between the House and Senate votes proved pivotal. The delay gave the bill's critics enough time to slow its considerable momentum and ultimately kill it.
    Domenici, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, later vowed to resurrect the legislation early next year. But with an election season looming, it could be difficult to drum up much enthusiasm for the issue.
    Anna Aurelio, legislative director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, characterized her group's last-minute efforts to defeat the energy bill as lobbying "on steroids."
    "In the last week, it became very intense," Aurelio said. "It was all hands on deck for all of our employees and organizers."
    Domenici, a 31-year Senate veteran who previously presided over fierce budget battles as former Senate Budget Committee chairman, said that trying to craft an energy bill that would have broad support was among the most difficult challenges of his political life.
    "It was as hard a job as I have done," Domenici said.
    The broad-ranging, 1,100-page bill addressed nearly every aspect of American energy policy. It would have restructured electricity regulation and boosted production of oil, gas, coal, nuclear and renewable energies. Domenici said there was a calculus to almost everything included in the bill.
    Money for development of renewable energies, such as wind and solar, was inserted to appease progressive Democrats. Measures to boost the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline helped secure the votes of midwestern senators who represent farmers. Subsidies for offshore oil drilling were added to appease coastal senators.
    Domenici dropped a proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite objections from the White House, because he feared it would doom the bill in the narrowly divided Senate.
    In the end, the legislation fell just two votes short of success. Supporters of the measure needed 60 votes in the Senate to cut off debate and prevent a Democratic filibuster. They got 58. After the vote, Domenici and his aides spent several days wheeling and dealing with senators to see if they could find two more votes. But no matter what Domenici offered, no one wanted to step into the hot public spotlight that would accompany a changed vote.
    "It was very hard to get anybody to change their mind once they had made their vote," Domenici said.
    In a lengthy interview, Domenici said the bill's demise hinged on two key factors: Successful efforts by critics to characterize it as a massive giveaway to big business; and the House's insistence on including liability protections for the makers of a controversial fuel additive known as MTBE.
    He also pointed a finger at New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, his immediate predecessor as chairman of the Senate energy committee.
    Domenici said Bingaman's repeated criticism that Democrats were shut out of Senate-House negotiations on the final version of the bill caught the attention of newspaper editorial boards, and subsequently an increasingly skeptical public.
    Domenici maintained that some Democratic recommendations were incorporated into the bill, but giving the minority party full access to a bargaining table dominated by House and Senate Republicans would have proven futile.
    "They could have said they participated but they would have not agreed to anything," Domenici said.
    But Phil Clapp, executive director of the National Environmental Trust and a former House energy committee staffer, said more effort to include Democratic suggestions only could have helped.
    "In the end, Pete Domenici failed to get an energy bill because he refused to compromise," Clapp said.
    A parade of mostly Democratic senators came to the floor in the days before the Senate vote to denounce the proposed liability waivers for MTBE. Domenici gamely tried to defend the provision, even though he later conceded he didn't want it in the bill.
    "There is no question I would never have agreed to MTBE being part of the bill, but that was an ultimatum from the House," Domenici said, referring to Texas lawmakers such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who represents MTBE manufacturers.
    Domenici argued that MTBE was approved by the government, so its manufacturers shouldn't be held liable if it contaminated ground water. He said those who allowed it to contaminate the water should be sued, not the manufacturers.
    "They blew the MTBE situation all out of proportion," he said.
    Clapp said the bill wasn't so much a new policy as a "staggering" giveaway to big energy companies.
    "It's merely a collection of gifts to the favorite special interests of Congress," Clapp said.
    Other critics said the energy bill, filled with short-term remedies, fell short of being a national energy policy measure.
    Bingaman, who was unable to get an energy policy bill to the president's desk when he chaired the committee two years ago, said the task is extremely difficult but must be done.
    Bingaman said as Domenici's bill grew to include more than $24 billion in tax incentives, it got too unwieldy to move.
    "It would be a lot easier to get consensus on a smaller piece of legislation," Bingaman said.
    He said there were many admirable provisions in the Domenici bill that should be enacted into law, including efforts to develop hydrogen cars, build a gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states and increase energy efficiency.
    "It's very important that this country tries to reach a consensus on an appropriate energy policy," he said.
    Domenici said he plans to try again. In the two months between now and the time Congress reconvenes, something could happen— another electrical blackout or a spike in natural gas prices— that could lend the issue new urgency, he said.
    "We'll have to see what happens in the next two months," Domenici said. "But this (issue) is still alive."