Oil debate stalls energy aid package for needy (Arizona Republic)

by Jerry Kammer
Republic Washington Bureau

A plan to help needy Arizonans and others around the country pay soaring utility bills is being squeezed by partisan wrangling in the Senate.

It's the congressional version of a high-speed game of chicken, with each side holding tightly to its course, hoping the other will change direction.

At stake is legislation that would boost funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, the importance of which is growing across the country as energy prices soar. The proposal would nearly double funding for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, with an infusion of $2.5 billion.

Arizona would get $24 million, triple its current annual take from the program.

But when Democratic leader Harry Reid moved last week to end debate and take the issue to a vote, Republicans said they would go along only if Reid agreed to allow a vote on legislation that would open up the continental shelf to oil drilling.

The Nevada senator rejected those terms, prompting even some Republicans who support LIHEAP to vote against bringing it up for a vote.

Republicans resisted Reid because energy prices generally, especially the price of gasoline, "are the most important issue for the American people," said Arizona's Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican who voted against the procedural motion known as cloture to cut off debate.

The motion, which needed 60 votes to pass, received only 50. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was at his cabin near Sedona after a week of campaigning for president, missed the vote.

This week, Democratic and Republican leaders have attempted to bridge their procedural gap and arrange another vote. But that effort appeared to be fizzling Thursday.

Kyl said that, although he supports LIHEAP, to give in to Reid's demands "would be to admit defeat, and frankly, we felt there was no higher priority than to stay on this effort" to promote energy production.

Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, LIHEAP's most passionate advocate, questioned Kyl's priorities.

"It is disappointing to me that in very hot-weather states like Arizona and other Southern states, Republicans who should be demanding immediate federal assistance to protect the elderly and the sick are holding this effort hostage to their political agenda," Sanders said.

Sanders, whose state has drawn heavily on LIHEAP funding during its frigid winter months, has collected statistics that measure the need in other parts of the country for help staying cool in the summer.

"Over the past decade, more than 400 Arizonans have died from extreme heat, including 31 in July of 2005," he said.

On the Senate floor, Sanders read from a letter he received from Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, urging passage of Sanders' bill, which is dubbed the Warm in Winter and Cool in Summer Act.

"Arizona Public Service reported that there was a 36 percent increase in the number of households having difficulty in paying utility bills and an increase of 11,000 families being disconnected compared to a year ago," Gordon wrote.

Each side in the debate accuses the other of sacrificing the best interests of the American people for a partisan agenda. Tension runs high because of the Democratic drive to win enough seats in November to give the party a 60-vote majority, enough to shut off a protracted debate on any issue.

Still, Kyl expressed puzzlement at Sanders' passionate advocacy of LIHEAP.

"It's unclear to me why he would try to put so much effort trying to make other people look bad for voting against (cloture)," he said.

"Frankly, I think he looks bad for not being willing to tackle our energy problem" with efforts to lower costs by boosting production.

Kyl wrote to the secretary of Health and Human Services last week, asking that some LIHEAP funds still available for the current fiscal year be used to help Arizonans through the summer.

Kyl points out that LIHEAP, conceived nearly three decades ago primarily as a means of assisting Northerners in winter, has long slighted Arizona. He has made repeated efforts to adjust the spending formula to bring more assistance to the state.