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Dems Drafting Energy Bill In Secret, Too

After faltering on their war agenda and on expanding children’s health care, Democratic congressional leaders are hungry for a domestic policy victory, and they’ve set their sights on energy efficiency legislation.

But even on an issue about which Democrats have preached and promised for years, their majorities aren’t translating into easy power. And it’s not just those Big Oil-loving Republicans who are to blame.

For Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), managing his own caucus is like playing with a Rubik’s Cube, with each advance carefully calibrated to limit simultaneous losses. That helps explain why crafting the final version of a bill with billions at stake for a wide swath of industries is shrouded in secrecy.

The public might know a little more if an official conference committee hadn’t been blocked for weeks by Senate Republicans. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved the process forward by assigning the initial round of negotiations to a handful of senior leadership and committee aides.

But there’s little guarantee the public would know a lot more even with an official conference. Senior aides have spread the word that the big issues — corporate average fuel economy standards, tax credits and the renewable energy portfolio — will be resolved in the eleventh hour by the principals: the two leaders and a few other senior lawmakers.

Lobbyists recently detected the legislative movement and sprung into action. The tight circle of final authors sharpens their targets. But their job remains difficult because most of the legislators and aides have already heard pro-and-con arguments about each provision about a million times already.

A smaller, more achievable goal is simply to keep Reid from packaging together a bill that attracts 60 votes — whether they come from Democrats, Republicans or the two independents.

The Senate leader is well-aware of his challenge and is already vetting each plank on a votes gained/lost basis before signing off on the bill’s inclusions. It’s a painstaking process and one that certainly won’t produce the Crayola green bill that Pelosi and the party’s environmental backers had hoped to see.

But it would be a major policy victory that the Democrats could use to shrug off charges of being a do-nothing Congress. But strong forces are working against Reid.

U.S. automakers aren’t happy with the Senate bill’s boost in gas mileage standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, but they may be willing to live with it.

What they aren’t prepared to let pass are changes in the way mileage rates are calculated. The legislation applies the 35-miles-per-gallon standard to both passenger cars and trucks. That eliminates automakers’ long-standing ability to hit the mark by averaging their car and truck mileage capacities — with cars getting better mileage and heavier trucks getting less.

The legislation also wipes out current rules that require automakers to calculate average mileage standards for domestic- and foreign-built fleets separately, a provision the United Auto Workers argues is critical to protecting domestic jobs.

Its chief Capitol Hill patron, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), is sidelined in the final negotiations because there isn’t an official conference. But seven auto-friendly senators — including five Democrats — sent Reid a letter two weeks ago cautioning him against leaving the Senate language as it is now.

Yet another threat for Reid is a dispute over provisions turning taxpayers into underwriters of the next generation of nuclear plants. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) is the guardian angel of the plan to provide government loan guarantees for 100 percent of new plant construction.

It’s opposed both by conservative taxpayer watchdog groups and by the anti-nuclear wing of the environmental ommunity. Even the Bush White House doesn’t like it. Domenici backed the White House down by putting a hold on approval of former Rep. Jim Nussle as head of the Office of Management and Budget until Nussle and the Department of Energy eased their objections.

The nuclear industry argues the loan guarantees are essential because a risk-averse Wall Street is unwilling to back its construction projects. Building in the industry came to a halt in 1979 after the accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Industry experts say 28 plants, costing between $4 billion and $5 billion each, are on the drawing board, awaiting some form of funding.

Some backers of the Senate bill say the loan guarantees could apply only to innovative plants, not classic nuclear plant constructions. Critics — and the nuclear industry itself — dispute that, saying nuclear energy’s qualification as a clean source of power will pave the way for broad use of it.

In the past week, a coalition of outside groups — ranging from Public Citizen to Taxpayers for Common Sense to the Union of Concerned Scientists to the Sierra Club — joined forces to try to strip the provision from the final version of the bill.

They paired two arguments that could appeal to a broad array of lawmakers.

First, the groups say, nuclear energy is too risky to become the primary answer to reducing global warming. Second, they assert that the language in the legislation — which eliminates Congress’ power to put an overall limit each year on the volume of such loans — could expose taxpayers to billions in debt if the loans default.

Of course, a simpler — and likely more persuasive — argument might be to figure out how many Senate votes the groups can deliver or take away from the legislation if the provision remains intact. That’s a number near certain to catch Reid’s ear.