By Steven Mufson and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2008
After two months of fever-pitch debate over how to deal with the soaring price of oil, Congress left town yesterday without doing anything on energy.
The final day featured a group of raucus Republicans who remained on the House floor after an adjournment vote was passed, the microphones turned off and the lights dimmed, demanding that Democratic leaders return and take action on comprehensive energy legislation.
On the Senate side, a bipartisan group of senators known as the "group of 10" yesterday outlined a possible $84 billion compromise bill including new "targeted" offshore drilling opportunities and a $20 billion program to get 85 percent of new U.S. vehicles off petroleum-based fuels in 20 years. But the group left unresolved some of the toughest issues -- such as how to fully pay for the bill.
The group called for a bipartisan summit to be held after the August recess, but by early afternoon different pieces of the plan were being picked apart. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) criticized the offshore drilling portion, and the liberal Center for American Progress said the group deserved "an A for effort, but their proposal is unsatisfactory and needs many improvements."
Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said he hoped small bipartisan groups in the House and Senate could spur legislative action in September. "Though there is not a lot of time, maybe we'll see some vote on those bills or some version thereof," he said.
Others were less confident. Gregory Wetstone, senior director for government affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, has been pressing lawmakers to extend production tax credits for wind and solar, a futile effort so far despite widespread support in both parties.
"It's a very difficult climate right now on Capitol Hill," he said. A measure with renewable credits has gone to the House floor five times and the Senate floor eight times without passing. "You certainly can't say that there hasn't been an effort to move this thing," he said. "But there seems to be always something more important to fight about."
With a volatile oil market, record high gasoline prices and heightened concern about climate change, it is difficult to predict how voters will react in November. But both Republicans and Democrats claimed that public opinion was on their side, and some observers wondered whether leaders of both parties felt they would fare better in November without an agreement than with one.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) cited a poll showing the public blames President Bush, oil companies and foreign nations for $4-a-gallon gas.
Republicans have cited other polls showing that voters are more open than ever to offshore drilling.
Despite the nearly month-long Republican drumbeat to allow drilling in offshore areas currently off limits, Democrats did not allow Republicans a clear vote on the issue.
Democrats maintained that more drilling was not only environmentally risky but unnecessary, because energy companies were not using their record profits to explore in areas already open for drilling.
"This is my flagship issue, energy independence and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters this week, saying her legislative focus was on finding renewable energy sources. She openly mocked the GOP push for more drilling as a panacea for the nation's economic woes.
Pelosi said the "only short-term remedy" for higher gas prices would be to force Bush to release some of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
In the run-up to the break, Republicans incessantly hectored Democrats over energy in floor speeches, press conferences and committee hearings. The effort put the Democrats on the defensive.
Democratic leaders closed legislative markups for both the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which finance the federal government, when they realized enough of their own rank and file might support Republican amendments to fund more drilling.
Instead, both chambers offered narrowly crafted bills that dealt only with expanding the authority of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate oil speculation. Even these bills stalled. Pelosi and Hoyer put the House version on a fast-track that required a two-thirds majority; it fell short by more than a dozen votes.
The Senate hit gridlock on its version of the speculation bill. Rather than debate the substance of the bill, Democrats and Republicans spent days arguing over how many amendments Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had offered to allow each party and whether he had changed his offer.
After the energy talks broke down, Republicans in both chambers objected to adjourning for the recess, which is usually a routine vote. Seventeen House Democrats joined Republicans in favor of staying in session to work on energy legislation, but the adjournment vote passed, 213 to 212.
A similar battle unfolded in the Senate Thursday night, as Reid scrambled to round up Democrats to make sure they voted to close the chamber. Holding the vote open an additional 15 minutes or so, Reid eventually prevailed, 48 to 40. Party leaders differed over whether that should be considered a triumph.