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  September 5, 2003

Congress Begins Talks on Energy Bill
Congress Begins Discussing How to Resolve Energy Bill Amid Worries About the Power Grid

The Associated Press


The Senate and House began formal negotiations Friday on a broad energy bill, with America's worst power blackout hanging over the deliberations.

The blackout gave a sense of urgency to the need to improve the nation's electricity supply system. Leaders of the conference of lawmakers who will try to resolve differences in the separate House and Senate bills promised an agreement by the end of the month.

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But they conceded the task will not be easy given the numerous areas of disagreement, from whether to drill for oil in an Alaska wildlife refuge to how much authority federal regulators should have in imposing electricity deregulation on states.

Some Democrats have argued that the electricity grid reliability issues should be dealt with separately, and pushed through Congress as fast as possible, so they don't become bogged down in debate over other issues.

But such a proposal, offered by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., was rejected by the House earlier Friday. And Republicans involved in the House-Senate negotiations quickly criticized a piecemeal approach.

"We are not here to pass out pieces," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the House-Senate conference, said as the group held its first public meeting.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who leads the House conferees, agreed. Both rejected the notion that agreement on a comprehensive bill cannot be achieved and said they hoped to finish by the end of the month.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas accused the Democrats of trying to obstruct progress on crafting a new energy policy for the country. "This summer we saw the results of their inaction and obstruction," DeLay said, referring to the blackout.

Despite the renewed attention on energy legislation, prompted by the Aug. 14 blackout that left 50 million people in the dark from Michigan to New York, a myriad of contentious issues face the lawmakers.

Even on electricity, argued Dingell, the only "widespread consensus" is that Congress should give federal regulators new authority to mandate grid reliability standards and impose penalties on utilities that violate them.

While lawmakers will consider measures to spur construction of new high-voltage lines, there is strong opposition to provisions being discussed to allow the federal government to impose transmission line siting.

And there is wide disagreement over whether federal regulators should impose mandatory regional power system management plans on states. The Senate negotiators have promised to press for a delay in such a rule, although key House members favor it.

Imposing such federal management rules is "economic poison to our part of the country" in the Northwest, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate negotiating team. Senators planned to insist on a delay of any such rules until 2006.

Meanwhile, some House members also were expected to push oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, something Senate Democrats have vowed to oppose even if it means blocking passage of energy legislation. The energy bill passed earlier this year by the House has such drilling, while the Senate bill does not.

During a hearing this week on last month's power blackout, Democrats complained that Republicans were trying to use the blackout as a way to push controversial energy issues.

Some tensions emerged Friday among conferees.

Domenici said he planned to rely heavily on closed-door negotiations among staff and lawmakers to work out the legislation with possibly only one additional public meeting, when a final bill would be considered.

But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the ranking Democrat on the Senate negotiating team, said many of the issues needed "a full airing" in public.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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