Republicans Leaders Seek Deal
by John J. Fialka, Staff Reporter
WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders in Congress pushed for a compromise on the pending energy bill and expected to clear the way for final passage as soon as next week.
The House and Senate majority leaders, Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, met with the chairmen of the bodies' energy committees and tax-writing committees in an attempt to resolve debates over the bill's electricity package and measures intended to increase the use of ethanol as a fuel additive. At the end of the meeting, committee leaders expressed confidence they could resolve those issues and work out an agreement on the multibillion-dollar package of tax incentives over the weekend.
Unlike last year's energy bill, which died after a series of open, marathon sessions between Republican and Democratic conferees, this year's measure has been shaped largely by Republican leaders behind closed doors. Marnie Funk, communications director for the Senate Energy Committee, said the Republican conferees will "try hard to get this done" before Congress adjourns for the year, which could come as soon as Oct. 31. However, she said, there was still an outside possibility the debates might carry over until January.
The electricity issue has split Republicans. Those from Southern and Western states want to prevent a proposed industry restructuring that would diminish the traditional, monopoly-like powers of major utilities over parts of the nation's power grid. Another quarrel is over who will pay for needed capacity increases for the electricity-transmission system.
Leaders expect to resolve details of a measure to mandate increased use of corn-based ethanol as an additive to promote cleaner-burning gasoline. Some urban Republicans have opposed the higher fuel costs that could result. Others have opposed a liability waiver that would protect makers of a different additive, methyl tertiary butyl ether, from lawsuits. MTBE, which is likely to be phased out as part of the bill, has tainted drinking water in parts of the U.S.
The tax package in the House and Senate bills, which is estimated to cost about $18 billion, includes incentives to spur the use of energy-saving or cleaner fuels. A study released this week by a private, bipartisan group, the National Commission on Energy Policy, might help ease the fiscal worries. It predicts that incentives to build a natural-gas pipeline from Alaska could result in $150 billion of savings to energy consumers during the next decade.
Democratic allies might help Republicans pass the energy bill, but they say they have been kept in the dark. "In general the negotiating that has taken place on these big issues has been almost entirely among Republicans," said one Senate Democratic aide.
Some Democrats might not be averse to further delays in completing the bill, which would fulfill a campaign pledge by President Bush for a national energy policy. Pushing it into next year, an election year, could make it even more of a political football.
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