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Senate Returns to Energy Bill Debate


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

For leaders of the US Senate, this is a week to try again. Lawmakers are considering changes to a massive energy bill. Over the past four years, this bill has already fallen short of passage several times. And it is not the only issue on which lawmakers passionately disagree right now. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Senators are acutely aware of the dismal standing Congress has these days in public opinion polls. Fewer than one out of three people says lawmakers are doing a good job. So for North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, it's a relief to get away from wrangling over judicial nominations and get to work on an energy bill, something that at least in theory addresses popular anxiety about rising prices at the gas pump.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): This debate is really a very healthy debate given what's been going on in the Senate for some, now, many weeks. It's a healthy debate about a big issue, a real issue.

WELNA: Already, the Senate's altered the bill to require more use of corn-based ethanol in coming years. It's mandated more renewable energy for utilities. It's approved huge tax incentives for alternative energy, and this week, it's likely to attach some form of climate change provision. All these measures guarantee a showdown with the House, which has approved an energy bill tilted much more toward boosting traditional fossil fuel production.

Another kind of showdown may come this evening in the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist is going to try once again to force a vote on confirming John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton has come to symbolize not only the party's conflicting views on foreign policy, but also a larger struggle for power between the Senate and the White House. Senate Democrats refuse to allow a confirmation vote until the Bush administration turns over secret documents on Bolton that it so far has refused to yield. California's Dianne Feinstein points out that the foreign relations panel requested those documents nearly two months ago.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I think the committee has a right to know if the shoe were on the other foot, you can be sure that the Republicans would hold out for the information.

WELNA: But congressional expert Charles Jones of The Brookings Institution thinks it's quite unlikely the White House will back down in the standoff over the documents.

Mr. CHARLES JONES (The Brookings Institution): Once you said, `No, this is the principle, the principle is this, you can't have them,' then you put yourself in a box, making it extremely difficult for you to go ahead and release the documents.

WELNA: Senate Democrats accuse President Bush of being intransigent in the Bolton standoff, and last week he started publicly accusing them of obstructionism. New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg fired back with this cheeky response on the Senate floor.

Senator FRANK LAUTENBERG (Democrat, New Jersey): I say here today, in light of our democracy's heritage of productive obstructionism, that I will be proud to obstruct some of President Bush's proposals this year.

WELNA: Lautenberg listed the president's foundering plan to revamp Social Security as a top target for obstructionism. Congressional expert Jones says voters won't be dismayed if it's stopped, particularly because their own priorities are elsewhere.

Mr. JONES: It's real hard to understand in the short run the whole Social Security thing. But it's not hard to understand the price of gas and it's not hard to understand people being blown up on a daily basis.

WELNA: And with polls showing that majorities now say it's not been worth going to war in Iraq, many Democrats and some Republicans have begun to echo that sentiment. A few last week called for a plan for troop withdrawals. Others denounced the treatment of US detainees. President Bush's allies have rushed to his defense, including Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): So when will this war end? I'm not sure, so we have people say, `Oh, they've got to all be released, you can't hold them, because this war might go on forever.' Might, might, might.

WELNA: In addition to sharp differences over Iraq, more battles over judicial nominations loom for the Senate, including the prospect of a huge fight over a vacancy on the Supreme Court. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.