Fall outlook includes lengthy lineup

October 1, 2007 By    

With a target adjournment date of Nov. 19 for both the Senate and the House (though I’m not sure I’d bet more than a penny on this happening), legislators face a significant workload in a difficult political environment. Below are some of the highlights shaping the agenda and the outlook for fall.

Lisa Bontempo
Lisa Bontempo

Politics

The scorecard for retiring congressional seats continues to grow. In the House, seven Republicans and two Democrats have announced their retirement or that they are seeking higher office. Now, House Republicans will need to win 16 seats to take control of the House.

In the Senate, Republicans John Warner of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have announced they will not run. Now, both seats will face competitive elections in what otherwise would have been a likely safe seat for these incumbents. This is a significant loss to the Senate Republicans given the Senate’s split of 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two independents. Party leaders are scrambling to prevent other retirements so as to put their energies into races for seats they do not hold.

Legislative priorities

Debate on terms of the Iraq war continue to overshadow other legislative priorities, and a recent vote on an amendment to mandate more downtime for troops between deployment failed.

Other war-related amendments to force a change to the president’s Iraq policies are expected during the Senate’s debate on the defense authorization bill for FY 2008. Congressional Democrats, however, seem anxious to return to domestic priorities, and party leaders are highlighting their efforts on student loans, education and children’s health care issues, including the expansion of the children’s health insurance plan.

However, legislators have finished only four of the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government; none has been enacted. Legislators are likely to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running through the adjournment date. Party leaders are keeping the possibility open to return in December to complete unfinished business. President Bush already has said he will veto appropriations bills that exceed his funding levels. Whether Republicans remain unified and support potential spending vetoes remains to be seen. (Congress needs a two-thirds majority to override a veto.)

Earlier this summer, House Republicans did not support the president’s request to cut spending for the Labor-HHS bill. (Funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is included in this bill.)

Energy

Democratic House and Senate energy aides have started to meet to “walk through” the text of the lengthy energy bills, possibly signaling the first steps to the “reconciliation” process to resolve differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions. The process includes appointing representatives and senators from the key committees of jurisdiction that crafted the bills to a formal conference.

Currently, Republicans are waiting to hear from Democrats on the conference process and timeline and have not participated in the preliminary review; Senate Republicans are not supportive of the House-passed bill.

As has been highlighted in past columns, the House- and Senate-passed energy bills have several, major differences to resolve, including a House-passed tax plan, which does not include an extension of the alternative fuels tax credit; a stronger vehicle fuel efficiency standard in the Senate bill; and a Senate bill requirement for utilities to generate power from alternative fuels.

In addition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has made the issue of climate change a priority and called for a mandatory greenhouse reduction plan.

Both the House and Senate energy committees are holding related global warming hearings and are crafting legislation that is expected to include a market-based cap and trade program.

Winter fuel outlook

Will we see congressional hearings on fuel supply and price this year? Recent September propane inventory figures posted by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) rose to over 58 million barrels, which the agency notes tracks “below the lower boundary of the average range.”

In a recent conversation, EIA energy analyst Dave Hinton said that unlike last year, “there is no propane inventory safety net this year.” He also noted that the “huge corn crop this year, about 10 percent higher than last year,” may bring a larger-than-expected demand for propane for crop drying.

This likely demand, mixed with the possibility of early and late winter demand, “may make us more vulnerable to market volatility in the big weather months of January and February. There is a less likelihood of a propane inventory safety net this year, based on current inventories levels and what little time remains in the build season.”

In August, an EIA representative told state energy officials that residential propane prices will be about 6 cents higher than last year; residential consumption is expected to be somewhat higher than last winter given normal temperatures, and that higher consumption and price is expected to boost consumer household spending by about $150 this year.

This month, EIA resumes its weekly Heating Oil and Propane Update. This report tracks inventory levels and prices for residential and wholesale heating oil and propane, and is posted each Wednesday through March at www.eia.doe.gov.

There’s a lot to do before adjourning for the year – whether it’s Nov. 19 or Dec. 19. More than a little luck is needed for Congress to finish its agenda.

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