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E-M:/ MTBE rascality

Rumors point to MTBE language finding a home in highway bill

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has been working on a legislative strategy to insert MTBE liability protection language into the highway bill, multiple sources on and off the Hill said yesterday.

Barton's move, if successful, would both pave the way for passage of the comprehensive energy bill and attach the highly contentions liability protection language to popular highway legislation. That strategy could make it politically difficult for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to oppose the larger bill.

According to sources, Energy and Commerce Committee staff members have discussed several strategies with both MTBE lobbyists and highway bill conferees that would involve attaching MTBE safe harbor language from the House energy bill to either the conference report of the six-year transportation bill or to a short-term extension that Congress may need to pass by the end of next week.

One lobbyist said staffers and MTBE industry officials are discussing the possibility of moving back the effective date of the MTBE safe harbor provision to Oct. 1, 2003. The change is designed to win the support of the two New Hampshire senators by allowing the state's lawsuit against MTBE manufacturers to continue moving through the courts, although the lobbyist said he was skeptical the strategy would prove to be successful.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is also expected to oppose the highway bill if it exceeds the $284 billion mark included in the budget resolution, regardless of whether it includes MTBE language.

Another part of the deal would involve placing language in either the highway bill or the energy bill authorizing a trust fund somewhere in the range of $4 billion to $8 billion for the cleanup of leaking underground storage tanks (LUST) and public water facilities. Water utilities officials have been skeptical of such provisions in the past because they say such funds would not nearly pay for the cleanup and would likely never be appropriated anyway.

Several lobbyists and aides confirmed that such discussions are ongoing, but they were unable to say if House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) -- who chairs the highway bill conference -- and other conferees are seriously considering accepting Barton's proposal.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee spokesman Bill Holbrook denied that the talks were taking place, saying they were "nothing but rumor."

Lobbyists said while they could see how such a deal could come together, it would most likely require some pressure from the White House on Young and potential incentives for other on-the-fence lawmakers through either the highway bill or the energy bill.

Young and his counterpart in the Senate -- Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- have repeatedly resisted attaching any unrelated language to the highway measure. But several lobbyists pointed out that Barton's strategy could allow for quick passage of both the energy bill and the highway bill -- handing the White House and congressional Republicans two major domestic victories before the August recess.

The highway bill -- which funnels billions of dollars in construction funds to the states -- has bipartisan support and has passed both chambers by wide-margins. Both parties have also touted the bill as a major economic boon, which would make it difficult for opponents of MTBE liability protection to filibuster.

"The highway bill -- as far as a domestic priority -- is something that everyone wants," said the lobbyist. "This play on the highway bill, if they are successful, is going to put the Democrats in an awkward position of filibustering the bill."

Conferees have not yet reached a deal on the bill, and the main sticking point remains the $11 billion difference in the costs of the competing versions. The current extension of the transportation bill expires June 30, and if no deal is in place by next week, lawmakers will need to approve another short-term extension.

Still, the conferees appear closer than they have ever been to completing a bill and key lawmakers say publicly they believe a deal will be put in place during the next couple of weeks.

"I think they are very close to getting a conference report done on the highway bill; if I'm Joe Barton or Tom DeLay I would seize on this opportunity," said the lobbyist. "It's too good politically; it's too good not to try."

Several lobbyists reported that while there have also been discussions about attaching the MTBE language to a potential short-term extension, such a strategy might backfire because it would be too transparent and could "hold hostage" transportation funds to the state.

Observers say the key to the whole deal is whether Young would agree to go along with the plan, arguing he could essentially kill the idea by instructing the conference to vote against it. Several opponents of MTBE liability protection and highway industry lobbyists said they had a hard time seeing why Young, who has made it his top priority to pass a transportation bill, would agree to anything that would further jeopardize the bill.

"The T&I Committee has not allowed any extraneous provisions to the highway bill, I would be kind of surprised if Chairman Young decided to do that now," said one highway industry official.

Opponents of MTBE liability protection also described the talks as a clear indicator that MTBE lobbyists and backers in the House do not believe they could pass an energy bill with such language. "It sends a signal to me that they can't do a compromise on MTBE, they can't get it though the Senate," said one official who is lobbying against liability protection.



Katie Murtha

Office of Representative John D. Dingell