The Enron-ergy Bill Hits the Senate

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JOHN TODD/AP

Vice President Dick Cheney

Well, if Henry Waxman and the GAO really want to know what came out of Dick Cheney and Ken Lay's energy-policy deliberations last spring, here it comes. The Bush energy bill, which passed smoothly through the House of Representatives back when Enron was nothing to be ashamed of, is now ready for its close-up before Tom Daschle's altogether more hostile Senate.

For Daschle's Democrats, the Cheney energy plan was bad enough nine months ago when California was dark and the White House, in chorus with the Ken Lays of the world, simply advocated more exploration, more production and more deregulation — oh, and for the personally virtuous, more conservation. There was indisputably more for business than for the environment in proposals to drill the Alasksan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) and to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. An unapologetic Bush was not going to curb coal, oil or nuclear energy — at least until he won West Virginia again.

And now there's Enron, playing a dual coming-and-going-role for the president's critics: When Ken Lay was up, he had undue influence over policy; now that he's down, well, that's why you don't have those people in for secret energy-policy deliberations in the first place.

That may be why Dick Cheney has left his secure location and hit the road, disclosing to friendly (and often paying) gatherings everything the GAO would ever want about how much he hates Saddam Hussein. Cheney even dissed Waxman on Leno — and got a big hand — but the vice president wasn't taking any Enron questions from non-talk-show-hosts, thank you very much.

Bush is keeping the energy mood as light and green as he can, posing next to fuel-efficient, low-emissions, hybrid-type cars — a truck, an SUV, and a minivan, no less — but he doesn't appear to be backing down on ANWR or Yucca Mountain. And with House passage giving him some rhetorical leverage over Daschle — "the Senate must pass something," that sort of thing — Bush will be pushing pretty hard for the chance to notch a win on the domestic front.

Daschle's Senate has proven a lot better at shouting than at passing legislation, however, and with the Democrats toting around a bill of their own — one that's expected to attract 200 amendments — well, there's just so much to fight about. ANWR and Yucca, CAFE standards and fuel cells. Should we subsidize coal to help make it cleaner, or subsidize cleaner energy? Give more tax breaks for producers, or for conservers? What about ethanol? And of course there's the deregulation fight, and the very NIMBYist issue of transmission-grid siting, which brings us back to Enron and California all over again.

No wonder Congress-watchers and some legislators are predicting that energy legislation is just too big to pass. There are "a lot of ways this legislation might go off the rails," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, of the rival bill — and he wrote the darn thing. But that won't stop senators from expending a lot of energy on it, and with everybody agreed on the need to reduce our dependence on that nasty foreign oil, some hybrid of the GOP and Democrat bills may even limp through into conference. But energy debates are extra tricky because of all the local interests involved. Everything's a hot-button for somebody, and it may be asking too much in an election year to have legislators compromise on anything. Or pass anything.

Whoever's energy policy it was — Bush's or Cheney's or Lay's or Sherron Watkins' — it's out there on the road in plain sight, washed and waxed by the House and now very likely to be totaled by Democrats with a lot of different ideas about the energy policy America needs. And in the end, Americans will likely come away with none of the improvements in their energy world that everybody agrees are necessary.

Sort of makes you wonder what the GAO is so exercised about — unless histrionic gridlock was Ken Lay's secret plan all along.