Democrats limp along narrow victory lap with energy bill
The U.S. Senate has approved an energy bill stripped down by Republican resistance.
LACKING backbone to stand up to the White House and its obliging Republican members, congressional Democrats have surrendered strong energy legislation to wean America from its addiction to oil and to reduce pollutants that spoil the air and environment.
Beneath the weight of powerful fuel and utility industries and President Bush's threats of a veto, the Senate collapsed, stripping the bill of almost all of its measures to boost electricity production through renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Senate Democrats also capitulated to Bush's demand to preserve $13.5 billion in tax breaks the largest U.S. oil companies have enjoyed since Republicans bestowed that gift upon them three years ago.
Though Democratic House leaders talked tough when they approved the legislation, they are similarly unwilling to take on the administration and its allied oil companies, and will likely concede with their vote next week.
Democrats can console themselves in that a key measure -- an increase of auto fuel economy requirements -- remains in the bill. The new standard, the first rise in 32 years, will have cars, small trucks and SUVs averaging an industrywide 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a target automakers initially claimed near impossible and too costly, but later conceded is within reach.
Lawmakers managed to balance an increase in ethanol use from 6.5 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons in 15 years by requiring that at least 21 billion gallons be produced from non-food crops like grasses and woodchips. That would counter concerns about rising food prices as conglomerates that grow corn, largely for animal feed and other edible products, shifted to the more profitable fuel.
Democrats also managed to turn away Bush's attempt to weaken clean air standards through an amendment giving the Department of Transportation the exclusive power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, which would have upended a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency had that authority. The language would have rendered moot a lawsuit brought by California and other states to establish their own emission standards, which the administration has been fighting.
Republicans, using filibusters and procedural votes, have effectively blocked risk-averse Democrats from meaningful legislation, forcing them to take what they can get. But Democrats should not attempt to characterize meager success as major achievement.
Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, for example, said the higher fuel economy "demonstrates to the world that America is a leader in fighting global warming." Not so. Though significant, the new standards are just one piece of a larger effort necessary to release oil's hold on the nation's economic, energy and environmental security.