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In the Physics of Capitol Hill, Energy Generates Friction

Chuck Schumer, greenhouse-gas generator.
Chuck Schumer, greenhouse-gas generator. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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Thursday, June 26, 2008; Page A03

One shudders to think about how much carbon dioxide was emitted into the atmosphere by members of the United States Congress yesterday as they bemoaned high gas prices.

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Lawmakers scheduled no fewer than 12 events relating to energy costs: six news conferences and six hearings. The Washington Sketch went to all of them, while also checking in on the debates on the House and Senate floor, which, while ostensibly discussing housing and taxes, also returned repeatedly to gas prices.

The tour, from the Dirksen Building on the Senate side of the Capitol to the Rayburn Building at the opposite corner of the complex, should offer some reassurance to anxious Americans. The nation may be lacking in gasoline, but let it never be said that America has a shortage of gasbags.

Pretty much nothing government can do -- neither GOP plans for more drilling nor Democratic calls for more renewable energy -- will make gas prices lower anytime soon. But angry constituents won't allow their representatives to do nothing, so lawmakers have retreated to their default position: Blame the other party.

"While Senator Obama and the Democrats wait for new technology to render the gas-powered automobile obsolete, Americans have cars and require gasoline today -- today!" demands Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the day's first stop, a morning news conference in the Senate television studios.

Take a short ride on the (electric-powered) Senate subway to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, is fixing the blame on Republicans. "It's a crime against our future that, since 1995, so many here in the Congress, and, of course, in the White House opposed increasing fuel economy standards for so long," he announces.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) uses his opening statement to counter Schumer, who then uses "the prerogative of the chair to get in the last word." "Do you want to say something?" Schumer asks Bennett.

"We can discuss this privately," Bennett replies.

Take the elevator (or, better, the stairs) two floors up, where the Senate energy committee is holding a hearing on the same problem. Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) says we should have "decreased our dependence on fossil fuels."

"Domestic oil production is a bridge to the future," answers Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Another flight up in the Dirksen Building brings the tour to the Senate public works committee, which is also drilling for answers. Then it's over to the Russell Building, where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the committee on small business, is holding forth on the "toothless, feckless" regulators of the Bush administration.

But there is no time to hear him out on this point. Those on the Capitol energy tour must take the elevator down to the Senate subway, walk through a tunnel under the Capitol, and take another elevator and another subway, then a third elevator up to the Rayburn Building. Republicans, standing in front of an enormous photograph of Earth taken from space, are beginning their second energy news conference of the morning. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the House minority whip, announces that gas prices are "74 cents higher than it was when the new majority took control of this Congress." Two blocks away, in the Cannon Building, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House committee on global warming, is telling the panel to stop talking about "the threats of global warming" and focus on "how to reduce gas and energy prices."

It's almost lunchtime. Back in the Capitol, stop in at the LBJ Room off the Senate chamber and listen to Democratic leaders hold a briefing that deals with renewable-energy tax breaks and heating-oil assistance. Pick up a sandwich and peruse the transcripts from the morning's debate on the House and Senate floors.

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio): "Washington Republicans continue to advocate for the same failed energy policies that got us where we are today."

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): "May I offer a suggestion to . . . the Democrat leadership? Admit you made a mistake."

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa): "The two men most responsible for the prices at the pump are Vice President Cheney and President Bush."

It's 2 p.m. -- time for the Republicans' third energy news conference of the day, in the House television studio.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) pulls out a homemade pinwheel -- a folded piece of paper decorated with red and blue markers and attached to a pencil. "This is the Democrat plan right now for energy," he declares. "Waiting for the windmills and the solar panels to kick in is not the responsible answer." Still, Mica has some interest in renewable energy: He notes all the "hot air and wind" in Congress and asks "if we could harvest all of this."

It may be worth investigating at the next stop: Back to the Dirksen Building, where the Senate Appropriations Committee is weighing in on the issue. "The price of oil has gone up like a Roman candle," exclaims Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). The cause? Dorgan displays a chart with big letters: "Explosive Growth of Speculation."

"I have come to the opposite conclusion," responds the omnipresent Domenici.

It's midafternoon, time to cross the Capitol again to Nancy Pelosi's office, where the House speaker and her deputies are giving an energy news conference. "President Bush and his rubber-stamp Republicans have opposed common-sense legislation to address high energy prices," declares Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Outside the speaker's office, an aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner distributes a letter the Republican leader wrote to Pelosi, informing her that "Congress should not leave town this week until we vote on meaningful solutions to . . . help lower gas prices."

But who has time to vote? Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) are in the Senate press gallery, giving divergent views on a renewable-energy tax credit. And then it's time to get some rest: Nine hearings and news conferences about energy are on the schedule for Thursday.


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