US congressional energy stalemate hardens as recess approaches

US congressional Democrats and Republicans appeared unlikely to resolve their impasse over energy as the August recess drew closer. Republicans on both sides of the Capitol accused Democrats of stifling a full energy debate as Democrats charged Republicans were blocking other significant bills.

US congressional Democrats and Republicans appeared unlikely to resolve their impasse over energy as the August recess drew closer. Republicans on both sides of the Capitol accused Democrats of stifling a full energy debate as Democrats charged Republicans were blocking other significant bills.

Senate Republicans continued to put pressure on Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a full energy debate before the August recess by blocking other bills. Reid reiterated that the tactic would not work. "Republicans have had eight opportunities to vote on lower gas prices. I offered them the opportunity last week to vote on four amendments and they walked away," he said on July 29.

He dismissed Republican charges that Senate Democrats want to recess on Aug. 1 without discussing energy. "We don't need their permission to adjourn. If they want to stay here and work, it will be fine with us. We don't have any Democratic incumbents who are in trouble," Reid told reporters.

In the House, meanwhile, Republicans used the absence of a quorum to get several other bills tabled as a protest. "We'll not spend time trying to pass sham bills when the American people want us to act," Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought two energy bills to the floor the past two weeks which have failed because they arrived under suspended rules, which kept Republicans from trying to attach amendments but also required a two-thirds majority for passage. Republicans have used a parliamentary procedure to bypass committees and send their energy proposals directly to the floor for several weeks but to no avail.

Appropriations halted

Democrats have even stopped the fiscal 2009 federal appropriations process because they don't want Republicans to propose energy amendments, the ranking minority members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees said on July 25. It would be the first time since before the 1950s that Congress has not passed a single appropriations bill before the August recess, they added.

"Despite the fact that energy prices are the most important issue to the American people today, the majority proposes to scrap our appropriations work altogether and pass a long-term continuing resolution that freezes alternative energy programs at current levels and extends provisions of appropriations law that restrict domestic energy development both offshore and onshore, all without debate or amendment. What a disservice to the American people," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

"American families don't have the option of putting off their bills until next year, so why should Congress? Once again, the Democrat majority has put politics above people, and it has resulted in one of the largest legislative failures in a century," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

Senate Republicans also blocked two bills which Reid proposed on July 28 and 29. The first was an omnibus measure which would have combined nearly three dozen bills. The second include provisions to extend tax credits for renewable and alternative energy research and development. "We cannot allow the Senate to simply end debate on legislation to address high [gasoline] prices without passing a bill," Republican Conference Chairman LaMar Alexander (Tenn.) said.

Senate Democrats announced their own energy amendment on July 24 which included provisions similar to the bills which failed in the House, including repealing oil industry tax breaks, pressuring federal lessees to develop tracts they hold more quickly and ordering the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Republicans immediately denounced the proposal.

'Mired in the past'

Republicans and Democrats continued to make speeches about energy on the Senate floor on July 29. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.) said it was the opponents of leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on more of the Outer Continental Shelf who were "mired in the past" because they refused to acknowledge technological advances of the past 20 years.

Directional drilling has reduced the well pad footprint at Prudhoe Bay by 88% in the past 20 years, she maintained. "More oil probably leaks on driveways here in Washington, DC than touches the ground in Alaska. Let's use this ingenuity to develop more of our resources and move ahead on renewable and alternative technologies," she urged.

Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said that Republicans still are promoting a "drive and drill" strategy. "The oil industry has many friends here who are willing to act like human brake pads and stop proposals which encourage alternatives and other real solutions. Is their policy going to be to just drill a hole, which is a relic of yesterday, or to engage in a game-changing strategy? We should have had 100 senators ready to shut down excessive oil speculation last week. We should have had 100 votes for solar, wind, biofuel and conservation tax credits," he said.

David Vitter (R-La.) said a full energy debate is needed, and that he had proposed seven amendments already. "This issue hasn't been the first question at my town hall meetings for the past year; it's been the first 10 questions. Everyone has asked why Congress hasn't done anything about high gasoline prices. Other senators have other good ideas. We need an open process that lets us call up amendments, debate the ideas and act on them," he said.

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that leasing of 12 million acres in the latest federal OCS sale when 200 million acres were offered indicates that the oil and gas industry isn't taking full advantage of its opportunities domestically. Calls to open more of the OCS, he continued, are "the administration's last attempt to give oil companies one last grab of federal land before it leaves town for good in another few months."

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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