Deal offered to move Senate speculation bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democratic leaders on Monday offered their Republican counterparts a deal to move forward with legislation aimed at reining in excessive energy speculation, but one key lawmaker doubted the bill would pass before Congress adjourned for its month-long August recess.

In an effort to break an impasse over the measure, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid late on Monday gave Republicans the chance to offer four amendments to the bill that would, in part, expand offshore oil drilling and develop vast oil shale fields in the West.

Republicans had wanted to offer almost two dozen amendments to the speculation bill, but Reid said there was not enough time to debate that many proposals with other important legislation pending and the clock ticking down to the August recess.

“We have introduced comprehensive proposals that would lower gas prices in the short term while addressing the root cause of the problem for the long term,” Reid said.

The chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee doubted the bill would move any time soon.

“I’m not optimistic by the end of this week, when we’re scheduled to adjourn before August, we’re likely to see legislation in this area passed unless there is a change of heart,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman told reporters.

The legislation sponsored by Democrats would give the Commodity Futures Trading Commission greater oversight of energy futures traders.

Despite his reservations about lawmakers’ ability to reach a consensus on energy legislation, Bingaman said he is hopeful the Senate will be able to pass legislation this week extending renewable energy and energy efficiency tax credits.

The energy tax package was blocked in the Senate in June, but Sen. Max Baucus introduced a revised version of the package on Thursday. Bingaman called this modified package the most “constructive, doable” legislation that can be focused on this week. He said wind and energy projects are being held up because these tax credits have not been extended.

A Democratic aide said the package could be voted on as early as Wednesday.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said extending the tax credits is important, but Republican lawmakers will try to modify the speculation bill to lift bans on drilling in restricted areas, as well.

“We all want to do this extenders package,” McConnell told reporters. “My view is I’d rather do it sooner than later, and I don’t see why we couldn’t do both this week.”

McConnell said he has not heard about any discussions with the White House about President George W. Bush calling Congress back into session during the August recess to force lawmakers to tackle the energy issue, but he would be happy to return if that is what the president wanted.

“I think a better time to do it is this week, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t,” McConnell added.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been deadlocked on passing energy legislation. Republicans are pushing to lift bans on drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, but the Democratic leadership opposes such moves.

Instead of opening up restricted areas, Democrats want the oil industry to use land already available for drilling. They also want to sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“If everyone is going to hold out for a particular provision that they think is the silver bullet to solve these problems, then it’s unlikely we’ll get anything very comprehensive done,” Bingaman said.

Solar industry representatives said without the eight-year extension of solar tax credit, long-term investment would dry up and cost the U.S. solar industry around 40,000 jobs in 2009.

Roger Efird, chairman of the board for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said he is confident the tax credits will be renewed eventually, but he wants it to happen soon.

“We think we’re going to get there,” Efird told Reuters. “At this point, it’s a question of how much damage is going to be done between now and the time we get there.”

Editing by Christian Wiessner