Bush Pushes Energy Bill

Faced with a worsening energy situation that could threaten the nation’s fiscal well-being, President Bush is pushing lawmakers to take steps to curtail the U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The president met with congressional leaders in the Oval Office on Tuesday to urge them to proceed on a national energy policy he introduced more than three years ago. He is scheduled to address the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Conference in Washington on Wednesday, and is expected to emphasize the need for energy independence.

“It is time to act to make America more energy-independent,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Tuesday. “We are dependent on foreign sources of energy. It is a threat to our economic security and our national security. And the president is concerned about the impact rising gas prices are having on families and small businesses. This is affecting their pocketbooks and the president is concerned about that.”

McClellan said energy has long been “a high priority for the president.” The issue has assumed greater urgency because of historically high gas prices that exhibit no sign of dropping anytime soon. Since 2001, when the president initially released his energy proposal, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline has increased 80 percent, from $1.23 to $2.21, and U.S. oil imports have jumped by more than 10 percent.

“Getting an energy bill passed is one of the most important things this Congress can do,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “It’s important because this bill will create jobs, it will help keep our nation secure, but most importantly, it will help ease the financial burden millions of Americans face today at the pump.”

The House is expected to pass its version of energy legislation this week. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has indicated he is willing to move ahead as well.

But getting legislation passed won’t be easy. No energy bill has survived the last three sessions of Congress _ primarily because of opposition from environmentalists over a provision permitting oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The bill faces similar problems in the Senate this go-round.

The job wasn’t made any easier on Tuesday when three influential groups _ the National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense Action and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste _ announced their opposition.

In a statement, the groups said the House package was “strikingly similar to the bloated, controversial energy bill that died last session,” and expressed concerns that it will “cost taxpayers dearly and further inflate the federal budget.”

Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said the legislation “will do nothing to curtail rising prices, promote reduced energy use or renewable energy sources, and will only cause harm to our environment through increased reliance on fossil fuels.”

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)shns.com.)