WASHINGTON - With Congress out of town for August and then likely focused on spending bills through September, a two-month game of positioning on a final national energy policy bill has begun.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said last week that he has no doubt that a joint House-Senate conference committee will produce a final version. Republicans have the majority in the committee and they want a bill, Stevens said, so there will be no repeat of protracted, unsuccessful conference efforts last year.
Just what will be in that bill remains a subject of much speculation.
Both Stevens and Gov. Frank Murkowski have said the bill likely will contain financial incentives to build a natural gas line from Alaska to the Lower 48, and perhaps long-sought language to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Democrats have supported gas line incentives, but the party's ranking member on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week warned that Republicans should stay away from ANWR.
"The strength of this bill is its broad, bipartisan support, and we hope the conference will produce a bill that can command similar bipartisan support," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
To date, ANWR language has not gained enough bipartisan backing to overcome filibuster threats by several senators.
Both Stevens and Murkowski have suggested that might change.
Stevens pointed to energy prices.
"I really think this is a crisis era for energy pricing and energy policy," he said.
But when pressed, Stevens seemed to back off a bit.
"So you're going to try on ANWR, seriously?" a reporter asked.
"I'm not on the conference," Stevens said.
"Do you anticipate the majority trying seriously?" the reporter asked.
"It's in the House's bill. I assume the House is going to try to get it in," Stevens said. "I'm not involved with that. You guys for some reason or another want us to answer questions about what's in other people's minds, other people's motivations. My motivation is to get a bill. I'm part of a leadership that wants a bill, that is committed to getting a bill. And we will get a bill."
Stevens said a small faction of Senate Democrats, what he calls a "minority of the minority," do not want an energy bill. That group spent the last week on the Senate floor stalling it, he said.
That strategy may come to an end in October, he said.
"If the minority of the minority wants to stop it, that's their privilege, but the majority of the minority is going to take the blame if that happens," he said.
Murkowski, who spent 20 years as a senator, has made the same points, with more theory about how a filibuster might be stopped.
Murkowski on Monday in Fairbanks asserted that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D, has a great incentive to pass an energy bill, even if it has ANWR-opening language. Daschle, facing a tough re-election fight, wants ethanol subsidies the bill would provide, Murkowski noted.
Last year, Daschle appointed prominent ANWR-drilling opponents to the conference committee that killed the bill.