Political Wrap: Energy Bill, Stem Cell Legislation

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As the August recess approaches, Congress is in a frenzy to handle final business and pass bills. Andrea Seabrook talks with Renee Montagne about issues pressing the Hill and the White House.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Congress is in the final throes of the legislative session before its August recess. The Senate meets today for votes on several major bills that the House of Representatives wrapped up last night. NPR's congressional reporter, Andrea Seabrook, joins us now.

Good morning.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What's in this last very rushed week of work?

SEABROOK: Well, Renee, congressional leaders have been pulling these big bills out of their hats sort of at the last minute and rushing them to the floor for votes. They're finishing up the highway bill this morning. It's worth close to $300 billion of road construction and bridge projects. CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, was pushed through by Republican leaders through the House on Wednesday. That was--that only eked through by a two-vote margin. And then yesterday afternoon, this enormous energy bill passed the House. It's in the Senate today. That's worth billions in tax incentives and grants for electricity, oil and natural gas companies, as well as incentives for renewable energies like solar and wind power, hybrid cars. You know, on a good week Congress might consider one of these bills, but this week we've had all three and more.

MONTAGNE: And President Bush has been trying to get that energy bill through Congress for years. Why is it finally happening now?

SEABROOK: You know, sometimes it just takes a few years for a bill to ripen, as they say, for the right interests to line up in support of something as huge and as controversial as this energy bill. There are several reasons why this year is the year. Gas prices is one. They're over $2 a gallon in most parts of the country. They have helped lawmakers convince their constituents that the bill is needed now, though they also admit it will do little to lower gas prices anytime soon.

Negotiators also stripped out a couple of very controversial measures from the bill: oil drilling in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the part about MTBE, that's methyl tertiary butyl ether. It's a gasoline additive that's been leaking out of underground tanks and contaminating water supplies in some places.

The last couple of go-arounds on this bill, and even this year, up until last weekend, a part of the bill would have shielded MTBE makers from liability lawsuits against them. That was championed before by the powerful House majority leader, Tom DeLay, the Republican of Texas, who has MTBE makers in his district. He's disappointed, though he did vote for the bill.

MONTAGNE: Well, is that a sign that Tom DeLay has less clout these days?

SEABROOK: You know, you could certainly read it that way. When the energy bill died before, it was in part, as I said, because DeLay wouldn't budge on MTBE. This time, the forces at work, the White House, Republican negotiators, oil and natural gas lobbyists, decided the rest of the bill was more important than that one DeLay-sponsored provision. And that doesn't make it seem as though DeLay could stop it this time. You know, this week he told us that the Senate seemed to be controlled by trial lawyers who, he says, will benefit from MTBE lawsuits. You know, he's not had the best year. There are a couple investigations into him this year.

MONTAGNE: And, Andrea, there have been times so far this year when Congress has looked somewhat independent of the White House: efforts to amend the Patriot Act, stem cell legislation. What is it now, back in lockstep with President Bush?

SEABROOK: To some extent, Renee, that's true. I mean, this president has now gotten the energy bill he's wanted since the very first year he was in office. He got CAFTA, even though there was a lot of opposition in the House of Representatives. And so the question is, how long will he really be able to keep that leadership or control over the agenda? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist this morning came out for increasing federal funding for stem cell research. The president's very much against that. And there are more in the House and Senate who want that. So it's--it'll be interesting to see how long he can control the agenda while his presidency is waning.

MONTAGNE: Andrea, thanks very much.

SEABROOK: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Andrea Seabrook covers Congress for NPR.

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