Senate to grapple with OPEC in wake of House bill passage
By Elana Schor
(TheHill.com) May 24, 2007
Several senators are eyeing next month’s energy bill as a vehicle to confront the powerful Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) over high gas prices, setting the stage for another veto battle with the White House.The House approved its version of the so-called “NOPEC” bill, which empowers the Department of Justice to bring antitrust lawsuits against the OPEC alliance in U.S. court, by a lopsided and veto-proof margin on Tuesday. For the dozen backers of the Senate’s bipartisan NOPEC bill, a summer of pressure at the pump may provide the perfect opening.
“We should send a resounding message,” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said yesterday. “Time is precious on the floor in terms of the schedule, so [the question is] if we can simplify the process and streamline it, and not lose our ability to capitalize on the momentum created by the House action.”After a prolonged war-funding debate that saw Republicans pledging to sustain any White House veto, the NOPEC bill — and a gasoline price-gouging measure the House passed yesterday — offers Democrats a greater chance of snaring enough GOP votes to override President Bush.The White House has issued veto threats on the NOPEC bill, warning that the potential to sue oil-producing nations such as Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia could spark diplomatic and economic retaliation. Yet Republicans are likely to stray from Bush, attracted to the political hay that can be made from blasting OPEC members that many lawmakers consider enemies of the U.S. “Republican support of OPEC legislation would dovetail very well with their desire to take the heat off domestic oil companies,” one Senate Democratic aide said.Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), unveiling the energy legislation with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and several senior Democrats, said she would gauge support for the NOPEC bill and coordinate with leaders before determining her floor strategy.Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who this week became the third Judiciary Committee chairman in five years to sign off on the NOPEC bill, had stronger words in his floor statement: “It is long past time for this bill to become law.” Antitrust laws cover foreign businesses engaged in alleged price-fixing behavior while exempting foreign governments, he noted.Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), the bill’s lead author, said in a statement after the House vote that he would push to attach NOPEC to the next appropriate legislation the Senate takes up.Any congressional embrace of OPEC lawsuits would have ripple effects for U.S.-Russia relations as well. The roiled Russian foreign ministry this week accused the House bill of violating international law, and Russian energy minister Viktor Khristenko dubbed the NOPEC bill “a violation of states’ sovereign rights” and “a public PR stunt,” according to Russia & CIS, a daily business journal.“That speaks for itself,” another Senate Democratic aide said of the Russian response, adding that Moscow’s aggravation is unlikely to make bill supporters reverse their positions. The bill’s most influential opponent may be the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where Vice President Bruce Josten wrote to House members this week predicting a “domino effect” if the NOPEC bill becomes law over Bush’s objections.“Under such a legal regime, the United States and all its agents throughout the world could be tried before a foreign court for any activity that the foreign state wishes to make an offense,” Josten wrote. Anticipating next month’s energy debate, Senate Democrats launched a new website at democrats.senate.gov/energy to educate members and constituents about the package. Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) previewed several changes he hopes to make on the floor, including greater environmental protections for renewable fuels and an energy tax package that Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is pushing to complete in time to pass.