An Odd Couple and the Energy Bill ; Two Senators from New Mexico - and a New Sense of Urgency - Buoy Quest for New Policy
Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
After derailing in the past two congresses, the latest version of a national energy bill begins debate in the Senate today with a momentum that previous efforts missed - including new interest in taking action on climate change.
It's driven by months of sticker shock at US gas pumps, but also by a partnership forged by New Mexico's two senators - a Republican and Democrat who hold top positions on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Indeed, a key indicator that Congress may be ready to pass a bill - and not just rack up talking points for the next election cycle - is the sharp decline in the partisan rancor. At this time in the last energy bill cycle, both sides were firing off attacks. Now, the committee's top Democrats and Republicans are appearing together to support a bill that passed out of committee with only one dissenting vote.
"We remain dedicated and committed to something that's not too usual around here: approaching this bill in a bipartisan manner," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R), chairman of the committee, in a joint appearance last week, with the committee's ranking Democrat, Jeff Bingaman - his fellow senator from New Mexico.
In itself, the comity doesn't ensure that president Bush will get to sign a bill. Many senators will want to weigh in on the bill, and any bill passed would face tough negotiations with the House.
The power of partnership
But the Domenici-Bingaman partnership is firing, at least, seems to be firing on all cylinders. For Senator Domenici, a longtime defender of nuclear power, closing deals is a honed art - and the energy bill is a legacy issue. Senator Bingaman is the body's leading authority on alternative energy sources. The pairing marks the first time that senators from the same state have been the chairman and ranking member of a committee.
After the November election, Senator Domenici told Democrats that he wanted to take another run at an energy bill, but this time, on a bipartisan basis. "We keep getting calls from outside groups asking if the glasnost is for real. It absolutely is," says Bill Wicker, the panel's Democratic spokesman.
In contrast to the House energy bill, which passed on April 21, the Senate bill includes a heavier emphasis on energy efficiency and use of alternative fuels. Amendments will be presented this week on global warming, offshore drilling, ethanol-based fuels, and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks or SUVs.
"The House bill offers billions in production incentives to an industry with record profits, yet cut its energy-efficiency provisions to two-thirds of what they were last year," says Kateri Callahan, president of Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, environmental and consumer groups. The Senate bill takes US energy policy "in the right direction. …