Two of the five bills that were to highlight the GOP’s legislative response to high gas prices ran into unexpectedly strong opposition Wednesday. One was withdrawn and the other defeated.
Resources Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., withdrew his bill (HR 4529) that would have allowed oil and natural gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A provision on retirement benefits for coal miners — added to attract Democratic support for the bill — instead drew opposition from both coal companies and labor unions.
Later in the day, a bill (HR 4545) that would allow cities with gasoline shortages to obtain waivers from Clean Air Act fuel requirements failed to get enough votes for passage. It had been brought up on a rules suspension.
The House did pass one energy proposal Wednesday — a bill (HR 4517) aimed at making it easier to build or expand oil refineries. The legislation has incentives for building refineries in areas with high unemployment. Supporters say it is needed because no oil refineries have been built in more than 20 years and existing refineries are operating at or near capacity. The vote was 239-192, mostly along party lines.
Republicans leaders had carefully constructed their “energy week” to highlight GOP energy policy and put pressure on the Senate to pass some of their measures. An omnibus energy bill (HR 6) has been stalled in the Senate since last fall.
In an effort to ensure that everything went as planned, GOP leaders refused to allow Democrats to offer amendments to the five energy bills.
Even with the loss of two measures Wednesday, Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the week was a success because the House passed the refinery bill, an omnibus energy measure (HR 4503) — nearly identical to the measure passed last year and now stuck in the Senate — and legislation (HR 4513) to streamline environmental reviews of alternative energy projects.
The most controversial of the GOP measures would allow oil and gas drilling in portions of ANWR, a 19 million-acre wilderness that borders the Arctic Ocean. The Bush administration considers the refuge a promising source of oil and a way to wean the United States off foreign oil imports. Opponents contend that the oil would have little effect on gas prices and that the drilling would damage a pristine wilderness.
Trouble in the Mines
When the bill was written, Republicans added what they hoped would be a sweetener for some Democrats — federal royalties from oil drilling would be used to help pay for health care and pensions for retired miners under the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund.
But the ANWR bill was derailed by a heavy lobbying effort by mining unions, who argued that the provisions in the bill did not guarantee enough health care and pension benefits for retired miners.
Shortly before the ANWR bill came to the floor, the United Mine Workers of America wrote letters to key members of Congress from mining states saying that the way the legislation was written would allow some mining companies to escape financial obligations for retiree benefits.
“We didn’t want to leave pensioners high and dry,” said Doug Gibson, a spokesman for the union.
Once the mining companies dropped their support of that provision of the bill, several Democrats, as well as some Republicans from mining states, reconsidered any notion of supporting it.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee and a staunch defender of mining interests, said miners were also worried that ANWR, whose oil reserves are still unproven, could be a “dubious source of funding” to pay for retirement benefits for miners.
With ANWR off the table, Democrats from mining states were spared having to make the uncomfortable choice of backing drilling in Alaska, which is widely opposed by Democrats and environmentalists, as a trade-off for getting retired miners’ benefits passed.
Pombo said he realized Wednesday afternoon he had lost the key Democratic votes and did not have enough overall Republican support to pass the bill, so he pulled it. A spokesman suggested that Democrats reconsidered their support because they did not want Republicans to get credit for legislation that helped union interests.
“Rather than have it go down, we pulled it,” Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said. “Politically, Democrats cannot afford to have us fixing an issue for the unions.”
The bill (HR 4545) that would waive portions of the Clean Air Act and allow regions to use less-clean-burning fuels in case of fuel shortages failed because it did not get the two-thirds majority required for passage under suspension of the rules, a procedure usually reserved for non- controversial bills. The vote was 236-194, about 51 votes short.
The legislation was opposed by environmentalists and many Democrats because it had no time limit for waivers from clean fuel requirements of the Clean Air Act.
Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said, “We were very surprised at the number of Democrats who voted against it.”
A House leadership aide, however, said that Republicans were worried that if the bill was brought up under regular House rules, which require a simple majority for passage, they might not have enough votes to defeat a Democratic motion to send the bill back to committee. So Republicans placed the legislation on the suspension calendar, which does not allow any amendments or extra parliamentary maneuvers, but it fell well short.
Abbreviated ‘Energy Week’
With the House moving on to Interior and Homeland Security appropriations bills Thursday and Friday, “energy week” actually ended up lasting only three days.
Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement that the week “fizzled.” But Republicans say they have made their point that they are doing everything they can to address nationwide concern over oil prices, the cost of natural gas and dependence on foreign oil.
“The House has passed comprehensive national energy legislation three times in the past three years,” said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for Barton. “Energy week is simply a way to reinforce the fact that the nation requires a cohesive policy which provides energy to people at prices they can afford to pay.”