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Republicans want energy changes in stimulus bill they call hasty

By ROSALIE WESTENSKOW, UPI Correspondent   |   Jan. 22, 2009 at 6:19 PM
House Republicans castigated efforts by Democrats Thursday to push through an $825 billion stimulus package in a matter of days and proposed a series of changes, including amendments to the energy provisions.

The bill includes a vast array of incentives, tax cuts and funding all aimed at promoting job growth and boosting the financial sector as the U.S. economy continues its downward spiral.

The energy provisions of the bill include $11 billion in investments for the national grid to improve electricity transmission, distribution and production; $6 billion to weatherize low-income homes; $8 billion in loans for renewable energy generation projects; and $2 billion in loan guarantees for advanced battery research and development.

President Barack Obama has placed economic recovery at the top of his priority list, and the House's Democratic leadership announced the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last week, before the new president even stepped into office.

House committees immediately took up the legislation, attempting to get the bill onto the floor by next week. Democrats urged its speedy passage, pointing to the dire state of the economy and the need for immediate action.

"We do not have the time to burn time while America's economy cracks and burns around us," Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said Thursday at a hearing in the Committee on Energy and Commerce. "This is as urgent as it gets."

The committee scheduled one day to review the healthcare, broadband Internet deployment and energy portions of the bill, a time limit Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., called an "abomination." Other Republicans said expediting the bill's passage would inevitably lead to mistakes by circumventing the normal legislative process of holding hearings and subcommittee markups before going to the full committee.

"No hearings, no subcommittee markups, a timeline to start and finish today -- there is no reason for the process to start off this way," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said at the hearing.

Republicans pointed to concerns that the funds from the first bailout package, passed last fall, have been used unwisely by banks and said a hasty bill passed now would have similar problems.

"We have already had Stimulus A," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. "We know Plan A didn't work. We know Plan B has a lot of problems. We are using up our available capital without a well thought-out plan."

While he agreed a longer discussion would have been desirable, Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., countered many of the bill's energy provisions were simply expansions of programs the committee already had passed into law, such as funds to make low-income homes more energy efficient.

Passing these provisions will boost the United States' economy and have numerous beneficial side effects, Waxman said.

"These investments in renewable energy, smart transmission grids and energy efficiency put people to work, clean our environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," he said.

However, Republicans weren't happy about a number of the provisions, particularly a plan to decouple electricity revenues from sales. Under current practices, utilities' profits are directly tied to the amount of electricity they sell, encouraging increased electricity production. Proponents of decoupling argue it would push utilities to invest in efficiency instead of new power plants to make more electricity, which they could then sell.

"If you create the incentives to consume less electricity, the less electricity (consumers) use," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. "But under this system, the utility still makes money -- they actually get rewarded for selling less electricity."

That means utilities will invest in weatherizing consumers' homes, encouraging people to buy energy-efficient appliances and auditing buildings to help customers identify how to conserve energy, Markey said. As proof, Markey pointed to the decrease in average electricity consumption in California, which has implemented a decoupling system.

But Republicans disagree, because they say decoupling sales from revenue will discourage consumers from saving electricity, because their bills wouldn't necessarily decrease if they used less. That's unfair, said Joe Barton, R-Texas, the committee's ranking minority member.

"If you use less electricity in your home, you should save money," said Barton, who proposed an amendment to strike the decoupling plan from the stimulus package. "I don't think we want to put in place in federal law a revenue guarantee for utilities."

Barton's amendment failed, as did a number of other Republican amendments, including one proposed by Upton that would have changed the definition of "renewable" to include any "zero-emissions energy" source, such as nuclear or hydropower. Democrats blocked the amendment, countering that nuclear and hydropower projects would take longer than two years to get online, making them ineffective as short-term stimulus measures.

Representatives did agree on an amendment proposed by Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., to create a $500 million program to promote advanced biofuels.

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