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Senate Takes Up Contentious Energy Bill


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate has begun another fractious debate that could go on for weeks. It's about a massive bill that aims to overhaul the nation's energy policies. Congress has been trying to pass a big energy bill ever since President Bush took office and declared it a top priority. NPR's David Welna reports on why such legislation has stalled repeatedly.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

As he presented the energy bill yesterday on the Senate floor, New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, who chairs the Energy Committee, declared that with gas prices well above $2 a gallon, the time is ripe for revamping the nation's energy policies.

Senator PETE DOMENICI (Republican, New Mexico): It means that eventually the American people in their great concern finally bubbles up, and I hope partisanship disappears and we try to get a bill.

WELNA: But even before the bill hit the Senate floor, Democratic leader Harry Reid declared that it did not go nearly far enough in cutting the nation's addiction to foreign oil, which now amounts to around 13 million barrels a day, or 58 percent of overall oil consumption in the US. Reid said Democrats will try to ratchet down that dependency by attaching an amendment to the energy bill.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We are going to fight to reduce our reliance on importation of foreign oil by 40 percent in the next 20 years. This is a goal we believe without question that we can make.

WELNA: Still, Reid offered no specific plan for reducing the projected foreign oil consumption by seven million barrels a day. The current bill aims to cut oil imports by far less, just a million barrels a day in 10 years. Domenici yesterday defended the lower target, a goal that, however modest, is absent from the House energy bill and is opposed by the White House.

Sen. DOMENICI: Now anybody that thinks we can do way more than that. I hope everybody understands that that's a discussion that doesn't have a great deal of merit and that is beyond the realm of the responsible and reality.

WELNA: Sparring over the energy bill began with the first amendment that came up. It would mandate a doubling of the annual amount of corn-based ethanol that's blended with gasoline from four billion gallons to eight billion in seven years. South Dakota Republican John Thune joined Democratic farm state senators in pushing for this fuel additive, which he acknowledged is not so popular in other parts of the country.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): The reality is that this is good, clean energy. This is energy that lessens our dependance on foreign sources of energy, that makes our country more energy independent, that is good for the economy of the Midwest.

WELNA: California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who opposes her state being forced to use ethanol shipped there from the Midwest, tried to strip a provision from the bill that shields the ethanol industry from faulty product lawsuits.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Now we have a new mandate here, ethanol, and guess what? My colleagues who love ethanol, who want ethanol, who dream of ethanol morning, noon and night--and this isn't a partisan issue, it cuts across party lines--are giving the makers of ethanol a pass.

WELNA: Boxer's amendment failed. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, meanwhile, tried to head off a push by some senators to allow offshore oil and gas drilling permits that are seen as a threat to Florida's tourism industry. Nelson angrily threatened to filibuster the bill unless he was shown the language of an amendment being shopped around by Domenici.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): For some reason it's being shared with everyone in the Senate except this senator from Florida, and so this senator from Florida is going to proceed with the explanation of why this is so critical to 18 million Floridians.

WELNA: In a bid to keep the bill from stalling on its first day of floor consideration, Domenici relented and let Nelson see the disputed amendment. Still, many other contentious issues lie ahead: competing proposals on global warming, bio-energy requirements for power plants, and gaping differences with the House-approved energy bill that won't be easily reconciled. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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