Sweeping energy bill stalls in Senate

GOP leaders try to push plan in face of opposition

November 20, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Facing opposition from a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, Senate Republican leaders struggled yesterday to muster enough support to push through a sweeping new energy plan.

The bill, with tax breaks for the energy industries, mandates for the use of the corn-based fuel additive ethanol and other items that help politically powerful interests around the country, was approved overwhelmingly by the House on Tuesday.

But the same regional deals that have propelled the measure now threaten to derail it in the Senate. Several lawmakers are opposing it because of provisions that would legally protect manufacturers of methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE, a fuel additive that has contaminated ground water in their states and would be banned under the bill.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who has been a proponent of the ethanol provisions, told a home-state radio station that he would back the bill. His support deals a setback to bipartisan attempts to stop the measure.

Senate approval of the bill would send it to President Bush, who has lobbied for it, and would produce the first comprehensive energy plan to make it through Congress in a decade.

"This bill is an investment. It will pay off with affordable, reliable energy that will underpin our economy," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

But the plan came under attack yesterday from a succession of Senate Republicans and Democrats, who called it a flagrant giveaway to polluting industries and special interests that would do little to make America more energy efficient and less dependent on foreign oil. They also said it would fail to bolster the electricity system.

"This bill does not accomplish what an energy bill should," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "It does not move us into the 21st century, reduce our fossil-fuel usage or substantially encourage or increase the use of renewable energy or energy efficiencies."

Those concerns conspired to stall the bill, sending Republicans scrambling to find the 60 votes they would need to break a threatened filibuster. At the same time, opponents tried to corral enough like-minded senators to block the bill.

"I hope we can muster 40 votes - I really do - because I think we've got to restore some fiscal sanity and some environmental sanity to this country," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is a leading critic of the pet projects inserted in legislation that are sometimes called "pork."

Republicans served notice that they could not overcome the opposition and get a final vote without Democratic help.

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