With prodding from President Bush, House and Senate Republicans said they will try again to break a deadlock over energy policy that has thwarted administration energy legislation for nearly four years.
Bush took office warning of an energy crisis and has tried repeatedly to push through major legislation that would boost domestic oil and gas production and the development of alternative energy sources with billions of dollars in tax credits and incentives for industry. A far-reaching energy bill was narrowly defeated in late 2003 amid complaints that it was overly generous to industry and had been drafted without sufficient Democratic participation.
Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said his panel will take up a bill similar to the one that passed in the House but failed in the Senate more than a year ago, but without several corporate tax breaks that were approved in a separate bill last year.
Supporters say the legislation would increase the development of domestic energy sources, improve the reliability of the nation's overburdened electrical grid and help revive the nuclear power industry. The measure would provide incentives for increased oil and gas production and nuclear power, along with enforceable operating rules designed to prevent cascading power failures on the electrical grid.
Opponents have criticized the legislation as an economic boon to industry that would not do enough to promote energy conservation and to limit reliance on foreign energy sources.
With enhanced majorities in Congress, GOP leaders have a better chance this year of winning passage of the most controversial element in the package -- opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, supporters of the plan said. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans has repeatedly blocked that proposal in the Senate, but supporters believe several new GOP members will help them push through the plan.
Senate Republicans say they plan to attach the drilling measure to separate budget legislation that would be difficult to block or filibuster. In the House, Republican leaders may wait until the bill emerges from committee before attaching the drilling proposal.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has signaled that he will work more closely with Democrats in preparing the new legislation. In the past, energy proposals were hurt by sharp partisan and regional divisions; Domenici has pledged to work more collaboratively this time.
Members of his staff said that, in an effort to gain enough votes for passage, they are working to revise the disputed sections of the legislation and are considering adding measures sought by Democrats. For instance, they are considering adding requirements that certain percentages of energy come from renewable sources and increasing automobile mileage standards.
In the House, however, tensions between Democrats and Republicans are running high. Democrats bitterly complained last week that they are being shut out of negotiations and are worried that they will be denied an opportunity to offer amendments to the bill in committee.
"They want to pass this legislation without change or amendment," said Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), a member of the energy panel. "We need an opportunity to develop real solutions, to offer amendments and to vote on new ideas that improve this already outdated energy bill."
Barton has refused to commit to a markup but has said that he will consider it. "I am strongly, strongly, strongly thinking about doing a very open markup," Barton said during a hearing last week. "I would love to improve this bill and take it to the floor with strong bipartisan support."
The renewed legislative activity follows Bush's recent call for Congress to pass comprehensive energy legislation after years of inaction. "Four years of debate is enough," Bush said during his Feb. 2 State of the Union address. "I urge Congress to pass legislation that makes America more secure and less dependent on foreign energy."
Bush and Vice President Cheney, who headed the administration's energy task force, lobbied heavily in the past for congressional action.
Since the 2003 legislative stalemate, energy prices have continued to rise and demand has continued to increase. Oil prices hit a record of more than $55 a barrel last year and have been hovering in the historically high, mid-$40 range, helping inflate gasoline prices and dragging domestic economic growth, economists have said. Natural-gas bills have been rising and manufacturers that rely on gas have been sounding the alarm.
Oil prices are rising largely because of increasing demand -- especially from China -- and a tight supply. Demand for natural gas has also been increasing, and many in the industry are concerned about a lack of terminals where imports of liquefied natural gas can be unloaded.
Lawmakers from both parties say comprehensive energy legislation is needed to deal with these issues. But many have fundamental disagreements about the approach. Some want measures that focus on increasing domestic production, while others want more emphasis on conservation or a combination of approaches.
Given the impasse, some lawmakers have advocated breaking up the energy bill into more saleable pieces that might attract sufficient support. But GOP leaders and the administration say that a comprehensive approach is needed and that piecemeal efforts would be inadequate.
Energy policy analysts said the country needs a comprehensive approach that includes a rise in production, an increase in automobile mileage requirements, the development of alternative fuels and the use of more efficient technologies.
"We should have an energy policy bill that really addresses the national interests," said Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of the energy program at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. "The bill that was constructed in 2003 would just line the pockets of special-interest groups and do virtually nothing to enhance the energy security of our country."