Bush's energy plan stalls

Hearing voters' cries, Congress focuses on curbing price of gas

April 17, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's plan to break the U.S. addiction to oil is languishing as Congress pushes instead for measures designed to address voters' more immediate concern about rising gasoline prices.

With prices at the pump expected to jump 25 cents a gallon over those seen last summer, the president's goals for energy independence appear to have sunk close to the bottom of Congress' election-year priority list.

"I'm looking forward to working with Congress when they get back, to make sure we invest wisely in new technologies" that will encourage use of alternative fuels, Bush said last week.

But there is little sign of movement to implement Bush's plan, as Republicans and Democrats question the deep cuts in other energy programs the president has proposed as a way of paying for his new proposal, the Advanced Energy Initiative.

Bush's plan would do little in the short term to lower fuel costs. But the president wants Congress to act on the initiative in order to show that he is confronting voter worries about gasoline prices, which aides say are a major reason that Bush isn't getting credit for strong economic growth.

"We hope that it will have a moderating effect on prices," said Craig Stevens, an Energy Department spokesman, adding that the Bush administration is "fully committed" to securing funding for the initiative.

Few in either party disagree with the approach behind the Bush proposals, which aim to stimulate development of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, and eventually to help wean the nation off imported oil. Bush said he wants to reduce U.S. reliance on Middle East oil by 75 percent over the next 20 years.

For now, though, Americans are more dependent than ever on fossil fuels. And with gasoline prices up sharply as the summer driving season nears, key players in Congress have their own ideas, such as expanding domestic drilling for natural gas and making it easier for refineries to produce more gasoline.

Bush's push for new energy sources, such as ethanol made from switchgrass, has some Republicans privately rolling their eyes at what they call a long-shot effort with little appeal to motorists. Lawmakers are focusing instead on measures that could bring down prices quickly.

"All of that stuff the president outlined is very important but is a little out of step with present-day needs and present-day demand," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee. "When you begin to talk about the needs of today, you're talking about domestic supply and refining capacity."

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, has said the House will consider an energy measure in June that could include incentives for expanding production and use of renewable fuels. But lawmakers are most concerned with addressing public worries about fuel prices, said his spokesman, Kevin Madden.

"Even though all the economic indicators are good, one of the underlying anxieties that we see is energy costs," Madden said. "Most of what we'll be doing with legislation will be addressing those underlying anxieties."

The approach looks familiar to veterans of Washington's energy debates, who say Congress often opts for quick fixes rather than farther-reaching alternatives.

The Bush plan seemingly is an effort to rise above the partisan fray on energy policy, which has pitted Republicans and oil industry players who want to increase production against Democrats and environmentalists who favor conservation and taxes on industry profits. But Bush's approach may be ill-suited to an election year.

"There's just very little chance that members of the Congress are going to work in a substantive, collaborative way on energy legislation. That's just not the way it works in an even-numbered year," said energy lobbyist Frank Maisano.

The resistance to Bush's plan is one of a growing number of areas in which Congress, increasingly motivated by election-year calculations, is parting ways with the president. A guest worker program for immigrants, which Bush favors, has been blocked in part by Republicans, in another sign of his diminished power in his second term and of lawmakers' mounting sense of independence.

Republicans in Congress are crafting measures to expand offshore drilling and open more federal land to oil and gas exploration. Another priority is resurrecting a measure that is designed to help oil refiners expand operations and produce more fuel.

"Greater capacity and more supply equals lower prices," said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Bush also supports measures to increase domestic oil and gas production, Stevens said, but the administration sees them as "complementary" to the president's goal of freeing the nation from its petroleum addiction.

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