WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bill Frist, experiencing a rough rookie year as majority leader, put it publicly to fellow senators late Friday morning. If you want to retain the succulent morsels of pork embedded in the massive energy bill, you better let the whole bill pass because you won't get a chance to pass them individually. This was modern "logrolling," a 19th-century invention for passing lots of bad proposals by bundling them together.
Frist fell two votes short of the 60 senators (out of 100) required to halt debate, a Senate super-majority needed these days to adopt anything controversial in the Senate. That setback evoked no remorse over concocting a monstrosity of a bill that goes $4 billion over Budget Act limits. Unrepentant about the bill, Frist promised to try again before adjournment. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who pushed hard for special ethanol treatment benefiting agricultural interests in his home state of South Dakota, blamed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's help for energy interests in his state of Texas for sinking the bill.
The tip-off on the congressional mindset came when the House quietly abandoned plans to quit for the year this past weekend. Instead, House leaders made plans to reconvene Dec. 4 and 5 to consider an omnibus appropriations bill. "That gives them a chance to buy votes," one prominent lobbyist explained to me. That is, appropriations might purchase votes for the energy bill. More now than any time since I started covering Capitol Hill in 1957, Congress is a giant, bipartisan, bicameral marketplace.
The 1,200-page final version of the energy bill supposedly addresses serious national problems, and it does contain desirable provisions (including federal authority to issue permits for interstate electricity lines in bottleneck areas). But mainly the bill is a vehicle for special interests. Washington lobbyists have been in a frenzy.
A classic case, described in detail by the Public Citizen liberal watchdog group, involves $800 million in federal loan guarantees for Minnesota-based Excelsior Energy to build a coal gasification plant. Although this would be the largest American facility of this type, neither the Senate nor the House voted on the risky venture. Excelsior was created by executives tied to NRG Energy, which filed for bankruptcy this year after being fined for manipulating energy markets.
Excelsior's executives since January 2002 have contributed more than $15,000 to congressional candidates, with over $7,000 going to Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota (elected in 2002). Some 13 lobbyists employed by Excelsior have contributed $44,000 in the same cycle. Minnesota's Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton joined Coleman in voting for the bill.