Thanks to a late Friday agreement among House Democratic leaders, major energy legislation will be debated on the House floor this week, and perhaps in the Senate as well.
But even with an energy deal, it remains unclear how wonderful a time of the year it will be for Congress, as major components of the Democratic majority's domestic agenda are unfinished, 11 spending bills have not been signed into law and the continuing resolution funding the government expires in days.
The 2007 farm bill, free trade agreements, the defense authorization bill, measures to overhaul the Bush administration's spying activities, and all those spending measures are on the table. Lawmakers must make some progress on appropriations before the current CR expires Dec. 14 to avoid a government shutdown. All that, and Christmas is still Dec. 25 and the Iowa Caucuses Jan. 3. House Speaker Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Dingell announced a deal late Friday to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards from an average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, paving the way for the House to consider energy legislation that also boosts renewable fuels and electricity production.
"CAFE will serve as the cornerstone of the energy legislation that will be on the House floor next week," Pelosi said in a statement. The bill will go to the House Rules Committee Tuesday and Dingell said in a Saturday conference call with reporters that floor debate is set for Wednesday. But he cautioned Saturday that that schedule "entails a huge amount of drafting and deals that need to be achieved."
Pelosi has scheduled a Caucus meeting Tuesday night after the last vote on suspension bills to talk about energy.
The CAFE deal may provide enough impetus for energy legislation to get past an expected Senate filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Reid said the deal was "good news," adding he is "hopeful that Senate Republicans will not attempt to block us from moving to it quickly, pas
House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton, R-Texas, in a statement criticized both the informal process of negotiations and the bill's lack of domestic production for oil and gas and other conventional energy sources.
"Speaker Pelosi's energy deal, like so many of her deals, is more about politics than energy," Barton said. "I'm doubtful that the Pelosi deal can win congressional passage, but if that worst-case scenario becomes real, I will urge the president to veto this poor legislation."
While there had been a bicameral consensus to increase the average CAFE standard by 40 percent, Dingell signed off on the deal only after getting an extension through 2019 of a flex fuel credit automakers can use to help offset fuel efficiency increases and securing language basing the new standards based on vehicle weight. That gives automakers more flexibility in meeting requirements for light trucks and SUVs.
The deal "prescribes standards that are both aggressive and attainable" while also providing "incentives to preserve approximately 17,000 domestic assembly plant jobs," Dingell said in a statement.
Dingell lost his attempt to require future EPA greenhouse gas tailpipe emission standards to be linked to fuel efficiency standards overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which was the last holdup in his talks with Pelosi.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is supporting the deal, which was also applauded by Senate Commerce Committee leaders.
"It is a major milestone and the first concrete legislation to address global warming," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who cosponsored legislation with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that was the starting point for similar Senate-passed CAFE language.
Pelosi said energy legislation will also include a mandate for refiners to boost production of renewable fuels as well as a mandate for power companies to produce electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
The renewable fuels mandate will be close to a Senate-approved requirement for refiners to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. House negotiators had proposed a smaller mandate of 20.5 billion gallons by 2015.
The bill will include only minor changes from a House-passed plan this year -- strongly backed by Pelosi -- requiring investor-owned power companies to produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020, sources said. Southeastern lawmakers have asserted that their region does not have the renewable resources necessary to meet the mandate.
Senate Republicans in June successfully filibustered a 15-percent renewable electricity mandate and a package of renewable energy tax incentives paid for by reducing incentives for oil and gas companies.
"Much work remains to be done to get it done," Dingell said Saturday, nothing that Senate opposition "would make it very, very difficult to get it in a quick and easy fashion." But Dingell added that "if [Pelosi] wants it in a final package, it probably will be in there."
But Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., slammed the Democratic compromise Saturday, saying that a bipartisan attempt to write a renewable fuels standard had been tossed aside by Democrats.
"It appears … that Speaker Pelosi has gone back on her word and chosen to go her own path on the energy bill," Domenici said in a statement. "The speaker expects the Senate to discard a negotiated, bipartisan agreement in favor of her bill without amendment. That is no way to pass legislation and is another in a long list of reasons why Congress has lost the faith and trust of the American people."
"The inclusion of a costly, ineffective renewable portfolio standard will make this bill untenable for many in the Senate," Domenici added.
But the possibility remains that the energy legislation will still target incentives for oil and gas companies, though those details are not expected to be worked out until later this week.
While it is doubtful that legislation will include a House-passed $16 billion tax plan that the White House has threatened to veto, there is likely going to be tax language used to at least offset the costs of instituting the new fuel efficiency standards, sources said.
Even with renewable fuels standards included in the Democratic compromise on the energy bill, the farm bill remained mired late last week in a dispute over what amendments may be offered to it. On Nov. 16, the last day before the recess, the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the bill. While all Democrats and four Republicans voted for cloture, the 55-42 vote was well short of the 60 needed to move forward.
Reid filed enough amendments and motions to block Republicans from offering their own, including controversial ones on taxes and immigration, to the farm bill and that brought action to a halt.
One Senate GOP aide said it was clear Reid wanted to avoid votes on those issues, but that "when you are the majority sometimes you have to vote on stuff, that is the price of doing business. Reid just didn't want to play ball."
Meanwhile, two coalitions sent letters to senators last week urging them to act on the farm bill.
The National Farmers Union, the American Soybean Association and 17 other groups wrote that extending the 2002 farm bill would mean writing a bill with a smaller baseline because countercyclical spending continues to drop.
The Specialty Crop Alliance, representing 120 grower groups, wrote that failure to complete the bill would mean losing the industry's "landmark advances" in the bill.
Meanwhile, the Senate is set to begin debate today on the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement this week, with a vote expected Tuesday.
Under trade negotiating authority timelines, the Senate must vote on the pact by Dec. 12.
The Senate might hold up to 20 hours of debate on the pact. The agreement is expected to pass with a large majority, with Democrats roughly split on it.
The Senate could begin consideration of legislation to change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Senate Republicans are scheduled to meet Thursday to fill at least two leadership vacancies created by last week's announcement by Minority Whip Lott that he will resign before the end of the year.
Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona is unopposed to replace Lott as whip, but Republican Policy Committee Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are all seeking to succeed Kyl.
If Hutchison wins the Conference chairmanship, then another race would ensue for her Policy Committee chairmanship. At that point, Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and John Cornyn of Texas, who already serves as secretary of the Republican Conference, might enter the picture.
The Senate meets today at 2 p.m. for morning business.
The House is not in session today. The House meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday for legislative business. On Wednesday and Thursday, the House meets at 10 a.m. for legislative business. No votes are expected Friday.