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Hank Hayes • Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker claimed Wednesday his bipartisan “Gang of 10” senators have the best — and only — legislative trump card to play in advancing new energy measures in Congress.

“I understand the difficulties of this passing ... but it’s the only game in town now. This will be the centerpiece of what is debated when we come back (in session),” the Tennessee Republican told members of the Times-News Editorial Board in touting “New ERA” (Energy Reform Act) legislation that includes transitioning the nation’s vehicle pool to non-oil energy sources, enhancing conservation and opening up more acreage for offshore oil drilling.

Corker said he believes that in an economy driven by oil demand, the legislation could immediately affect gas prices at the pump.

The $84 billion bill calls for funding a $20 billion “Apollo Project” with a goal of moving 85 percent of the nation’s new vehicles to non-oil fuels within 20 years. Of that $20 billion, $15 billion would go toward developing advanced batteries and helping U.S. automakers retool to make alternative fuel vehicles. There’s also consumer tax credits of up to $7,500 per unit to sell Americans on buying alternative fuel vehicles.

The conservation component of the bill includes extending renewable energy tax incentives through 2012; continuing and expanding a $2,500 tax credit for hybrid electric vehicles; and offering tax incentives for installing alternative fuel stations, pipelines and other infrastructure.

The third — and possibly the most controversial — part of the bill calls for opening up more acreage in the Gulf of Mexico for leasing and offshore oil drilling. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia could opt in to lease off their shores. The bill calls for retaining an environmental buffer zone extending 50 miles offshore where new oil production would not be allowed. It also creates a commission to make recommendations for Congress on future areas to be considered for leasing and drilling, as well as accelerating depreciation on building new nuclear power plants.

Corker, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the group’s plan is to present the bill in September and then hold a closed-door Senate summit on energy.

“I know that sounds a little corny in today’s age ... (but) a lot of us forget that not everybody in the Senate is that well-briefed on energy,” Corker said. “We encouraged that it be closed to the media. (But) it won’t be. Most senators in hearings like this are really speaking to the public. They aren’t speaking to each other.”

Corker said both Senate Democrats and Republicans feel like they have an advantage on the energy issue.

“We knew party leaders, in essence, were using the issue to their advantage not trying to solve the problem,” Corker said of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Leaders were also trying to protect their presidential candidates (Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama) ... trying to keep votes from occurring that might hurt their particular candidates.”

Corker said McCain and Obama are both against drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

“In the atmosphere we’re operating in right now in the Senate, there’s no way a bill is going to pass with ANWR in it,” Corker said.

Still, Corker noted, senators may decide it’s best to “try to do something” prior to the November election.

Another potential roadblock, Corker said, might be President George W. Bush’s possible refusal to sign the bill because the legislation calls for closing a $30 billion manufacturing tax loophole to be paid for by the oil and gas industry.

Protesting House Republicans, including U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-1st District, were on the House floor Wednesday calling for adjourned lawmakers to reconvene and take up-or-down votes on other new energy bills.

Corker called their actions a “stunt” to draw attention.

“I voted not to adjourn (in the Senate), personally,” Corker said. “I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to come home for five weeks when the major issue in our country was energy and we had done nothing on it. ... I would be stunned if (Democratic House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi agreed to come back in so that would be a victory for Republicans.”

The bipartisan “Gang of 10” coalition is led by U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and, in addition to Corker includes John Thune, R-S.D.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.

For more information go to www.corker.senate.gov.

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