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Energy bill stalls in Senate

WASHINGTON - Legislation that would overhaul the nation's energy industry appeared to stall in the Senate last week, as Democratic opponents filibustered a final vote. A crucial few Republicans crossed party lines to join them, meaning the majority-party GOP could not immediately muster the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster and force a vote.

The political stakes are high, with Republicans hoping to hand President Bush a major victory on a priority issue heading into an election year. But more stands between the proposal and the president's signature than a Senate vote.

The House of Representatives approved the bill on Nov. 18. House rules do not permit filibusters, so passage there had been expected. But the bill's quick passage in the House means that any deal Senate Republicans may strike to bring over the two or three votes needed to invoke "cloture" (a limit to the prolonged, stalling debate termed a filibuster) and bring on a final vote would have to meet with House approval. To this end Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Bush administration's point man on the energy bill, has been meeting with Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Speaker of the House.

In addition, if the bill is going to pass this year, any changes in the Senate will have to come in other bills that alter provisions in the energy legislation, the text of which is not likely to change due to time constraints.

If all that is not complicated enough, regional issues in the closely divided chamber mean that any deal to appease senators on one point must be carefully crafted so as not to alienate others on another point.

Indian country has a direct stake in the bill's fate - Title V of the bill in its latest version would permit tribes to choose "streamlined" energy development projects, dispensing with secondary Interior Department approvals once the initial go-ahead is given.

Indirectly too, the bill could have an impact on many tribal households. By putting current public utilities law into mothballs, it would begin writing an end to a 70-plus year period when electricity has been a right subsidized by semi-protected markets, rather than a commodity traded on the open market. The costs of protected markets to power generation have come to be largely unseen by consumers, reflected as they are in electricity bills that remain a reasonable percentage of household income for most of the country. By opening these protected markets to competition, the new legislation would hope to reduce household electricity costs to something more in line with real production costs - in economic theory at least.

But the theory of competition producing lower costs breaks down in markets where competition has not developed to the point of lowering prices. Much of Indian country would occupy what are called "unformed markets" - for reasons that vary by region, they tend not to have attracted a multiplicity of competing utilities providers. In fact, much of Indian country has always comprised unformed markets electricity-wise; that is why, collectively, a higher-than-average percentage of Indian household income goes for electricity. Whether (and where) that percentage would be still higher as a result of the pending energy bill remains to be seen, as does the fate of the bill itself.

In recent years, tribes have been turning to renewable energy sources - solar and wind power in particular. Provisions that would encourage investment in "renewables," as they are called in the energy industry, were stripped out of the bill in a conference committee report seeking to reconcile the House and Senate versions. Democratic advocates then amended the conference report to support renewables. Domenici has stated regularly ever since that those amendments will not come to a final vote.