WASHINGTON Sept. 5 —
The Senate and House began formal negotiations Friday on a broad
energy bill, with America's worst power blackout hanging over the
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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