This month, a select group of senators and representatives
will sit down together to begin the final leg of a long journey: crafting the
next generation of federal energy policy. Senior members of House and Senate
committees with jurisdiction over energy-related issues, they have been appointed
to a conference committee tasked with reconciling the different versions of
H.R. 4, the Energy Policy Act of 2002, passed by the House and Senate. The negotiations
will also include the White House, since the end of the journey — if the negotiations
are successful — is a presidential signature.
Such could be the outcome as early as September. Then again, it might not take place at all. Disagreement over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for petroleum exploration may prove to be an immovable object when subjected to the less-than-irresistible force of compromise.
At the start of this process back in January 2001, passing an energy bill was not supposed to be this difficult. President Bush declared energy policy to be a top priority at the outset of his administration and put Vice President Cheney in charge of a task force to establish a new energy strategy. Most of the recommendations in Cheney's report, released that April, could be carried out by federal agencies or the White House using existing authority. But the big ones — like opening ANWR — would take an act of Congress. Fortunately for the administration, the Republicans, then in charge of both houses of Congress, were eager to show that they could deliver for the president. The House did so in August, passing H.R. 4 as a package of bills that closely followed Cheney's recommendations.
In the Senate, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-Ark.) did not even wait for the release of the Cheney report before moving an energy bill through his committee. Whatever legislative momentum he achieved, however, vanished that May when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the Republican party, throwing control of the Senate to the Democrats and handing Murkowski's chairmanship to Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Energy policy was not as high a priority for the Democrats under Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), particularly with the political impetus of high energy prices waning. Everything was put on hold after September 11, then came the Enron scandal, which shifted focus away from what the Cheney report recommended to questions over how the report was assembled. But Republicans, led by Murkowski, kept up the pressure, and Daschle agreed to take up the energy debate in early 2002. The starting point was S. 1766, a bill that he and Bingaman introduced just before the Christmas recess.
The Daschle-Bingaman bill bore little resemblance to the House bill or the Cheney report. Even after consideration of several hundred amendments during two months of debate this spring, the bill retained its initial focus on reducing demand and encouraging alternative sources. By contrast, H.R. 4 focused more on increasing domestic supply of both fossil fuels and alternative sources. The Senate bill also contained provisions on issues such as climate change that were not addressed in the House bill. Most significantly, from a purely political standpoint, it did not include an ANWR provision. When Murkowski proposed the House-passed compromise by which surface facilities for drilling would be limited to 2000 (noncontiguous) acres, he could not get even a majority of votes, let alone the filibuster-proof supermajority he needed.
On April 25, the Senate voted 88-11 to insert its heavily amended bill language as a substitute into H.R. 4. Compared to the slim margin by which H.R. 4 passed the House along essentially partisan lines, this tally would appear to represent a broad bipartisan consensus. And it did, just not about the contents of the bill. Instead, the vote was a "ticket to conference," a mutual agreement by the leadership on both sides (prodded by the White House) to try to hammer out a final compromise in the closed confines of a conference committee rather than on the Senate floor.
In conference, each chamber has equal say, and the majority in each chamber sends one more conferee than the minority. But when it comes to ANWR, supporters think they have the edge. The majority of House conferees support it. So do all the Republicans appointed by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS). And so does Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), whom Daschle had no choice but to appoint given Breaux's seniority.
ANWR-related provisions take up only a few paragraphs in H.R. 4, which runs for hundreds of pages. But this single issue casts a political shadow far beyond its word count. The conference committee is expected to finish its business in late summer or early fall, which means that the House and Senate will each vote on the compromise measure smack dab in the middle of the mid-term election campaign. Those searching for tea leaves to predict the fate of energy legislation in this Congress need look no further than the sign at the filling station. If gasoline prices go up this fall, both Democrats and Republicans are likely to feel pressure to pass something. If prices stay at low to moderate levels, Democrats will see considerably more political capital in stopping ANWR than they could expect to receive for passing an energy bill. Whether this legislation completes the final leg of its journey or is simply standing on its last legs may all depend on a gallon of gasoline.