Will the Senate Unplug Bush's Energy Plan?

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Loaded for W: Daschle

Well, George W. Bush got his "victory" headlines. "Bush’s Energy Bill Is Passed In House In A GOP Triumph — Environmentalists Lose," moaned the New York Times. "Bush’s Energy Plan Endorsed By House," said the Washington Post. The L.A. Times went straight to the hot button: "House Votes To Allow Oil Drilling in Alaska."

But how much did he actually win? By the time the House GOP leadership drummed up the 240 votes to pass its energy bill after midnight Wednesday, the 1.5 million-acre swath of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Bush had earmarked for exploration had been shrunk by compromise to 2,000 acres — and backers had to stroke the labor unions (salivating over construction jobs in the tundra) to get that.

The Republicans also adjusted Bush’s plan to include more money for conservation and alternative energy sources than the president had originally sought, and added requirements for improved efficiency of heating and air conditioning systems in federal buildings. And they simply abandoned some of Bush’s more radioactive proposals, like the measure limiting nuclear-plant liability and a broad initiative to restructure the nation’s electricity system. All in all, said House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts before the vote, they’d only tackled "80 to 85 percent" of Bush’s plan.

And wait until the Senate gets its hands on it. Sensing fertile ground for political disagreement in Bush’s poll numbers on energy and environmental issues, Democrats in charge there will be designing their own, opposite-polarity energy legislation for a face-off with Bush in the fall. Some key issues:

ANWR drilling: This proposal has long been presumed a non-starter in the Senate, even by the White House, and it’s not likely that the 2,000-acre version — given the way it still gets reported as a major Bush victory — has any better chance of making it past Tom Daschle and his Jeffords-installed committee chairmen. Cross it off.

CAFE standards: A arduously negotiated, ever-so-slight increase in SUV and light-truck fuel efficiency did make it into the Republican bill, which requires Detroit to set standards that would save 5 billion gallons of oil between 2004 and 2010, but doesn’t specify those standards (most number-crunchings have it at a measly extra 1 mpg).

In the context of a Democrat-led, moderate-steered Senate, that seems destined to be the low end. The House did beat back a meeting-of-the-moderates proposal by Reps. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would have required the combined passenger and light truck fleet to achieve an average of 26 mpg by 2005 and 27.5 mpg by 2007. (The current SUV requirement of 20.7 mpg dates back to 1983.) But the proposal may have set a precedent for selling the increased standards as a replacement, freedom-from-foreign-oil-wise, for ANWR drilling.

The whole damn thing: With even GOPers like Boehlert charging that the bill remains top-heavy with aid to the oil and gas industry, the Senate seems certain to try to turn the entire thing on its head: Less production, more conservation, more stimulation of cleaner alternative fuels.

The House bill currently includes $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives for the power industry aimed at increasing oil and gas exploration, developing new coal-burning technologies and promoting nuclear energy. Politically and substantively, the funds for conservation and alternative energy sources remain the afterthought rather than the centerpiece. Daschle’s version will doubtless reverse that proportion, betting that by the time summer is past and the Senate digs into energy this fall, public opinion will be in his favor.

It may be already. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush’s personal approval ratings are up again to 63 percent, but his handling of "the energy situation" scored only 43 percent and his handling of the environment 45 percent. Two-thirds of respondents still felt oil and gas companies, large corporations and wealthy people have too much influence in the Bush administration. And when asked who they trusted more, Bush or the Democrats, Bush trailed 49-41 on energy and 54-37 on the environment.

So if the House version emerged with "80 to 85 percent" of what Bush originally wanted, figure the Senate to come in around 35-40 percent. (The labor unions have really started to lean toward Bush on anything that involves increased production and infrastructure.) Throw the two sides together in House-Senate conference, and expect something like, say 55 percent — less tax breaks for production and more for conservation, no ANWR and a few more mpg on CAFE standards.

Politically, neither side will be hurt by delivering moderation on an issue that the public has yet to accept as an urgent matter. But Bush, in his eagerness to keep ANWR alive and give his House Republicans something to brag about when they head home for summer recess, has put himself in a somewhat unprofitable position. And when energy hits the Senate in a month or two, he’ll be facing little but "Defeat" headlines from then on.