US Congress formally ends session without spending or energy bills

By OGJ editors
WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 10 -- A sharply divided US Congress Tuesday finished legislative business for the year without passing either a sweeping energy bill or a massive $328 billion spending measure designed to fund the federal government through next September.

Senate Democrats blocked both, arguing that the bills were crafted using legislative "tricks" that excluded them.

The House and Senate returned briefly this week after a Thanksgiving recess but left without finalizing the spending bill. Last month, GOP Senate leaders declared the energy bill dead for the year. They could not get the two votes needed to cut off debate on the measure (OGJ Online, Nov. 21, 2003).

A new session is slated to start mid-January. Until Congress can reach consensus on spending, most nonmilitary government agencies will operate under fiscal year 2003 levels as stipulated in an emergency funding measure.

House Republican leaders said they are hopeful they can pass both bills, and the White House has urged Capitol Hill to complete action. Although Congress must pass annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government; it's unclear what shape a final spending measure could take, especially in an election year.

This is the second consecutive year that the federal budget has been left in legislative limbo; the new fiscal year will already be one-third over if Congress takes final action by Feb. 1, 2004.

Unlike appropriations bills, there is no congressional mandate to pass energy legislation, and the current conventional wisdom among industry lobbyists is that the bill has received too much negative publicity to pass in its current form.

Public interest in energy issues is low without a fuel price spike, lobbyists said. And that means an expensive energy bill is generating little lawmaker interest.

Republican leaders from oil and gas producing states disagreed with that lobbyist consensus, calling the energy bill a "high priority." The White House also has said it wants an energy bill, but it has not leaned hard on its Republican allies in Congress to move legislation forward, lobbyists said. House Republicans, for example, last week said their position on clean fuel programs, most notably liability protection for the fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, has not changed.

Both the energy bill and the omnibus spending legislation will be at least debated in late January when the Republican-controlled House and Senate return for the new congressional session.

The omnibus spending measure approved by the US House included funding for various government agencies, including the US Environmental protection Agency, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and the Agriculture, Commerce and Transportation departments.

A bill that funded most of the oil and gas-related programs at the departments of Interior and Energy already has become law.

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