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Congress Daily - Senators Look To 2005 As A Guide In Their Effort To Get Gang Going

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Congress Daily - Senators Look To 2005 As A Guide In Their Effort To Get Gang Going

A group of Senate centrists in both parties are following those who forged a delicate compromise in 2005 over judicial nominees by trying to do the same for another charged issue: record gas prices.

Ten senators — five in each party — sent a letter to Senate leaders just before lawmakers left for the Independence Day recess asking for a summit of energy experts to enable the two parties to work through the partisanship that has largely stymied energy legislation in the 110th Congress. On Monday, Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell signaled there might be room for compromise.

The group of 10 — led by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. — are essentially trying to replicate the success the Gang of 14 had in 2005.

That group worked out a compromise in 2005 that defeated a string of Democratic filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees and sidelined a threat by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to change chamber rules to confirm the nominees by simple majority, the so-called nuclear option.

Several of those senators — including Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — are part of the energy coalition. "It's not just what 10 of us think we can do. It's also what's going to be possible with the White House and/or with the leadership," Nelson said. "Ten can't rule, but 10 can make a difference."

At a members-only meeting before sending out the June 26 letter to Reid and McConnell asking for the summit, those not part of the 2005 Gang of 14 asked those who were in it how they could use it as a model, a Democratic aide said.

They are looking to put together a legislative plan. "We would like to come up with a package," Chambliss said. "It may be minimal, but that's OK if it is."

Chambliss, who is ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, said the impetus came after discussions he had with Conrad and others on the farm bill.

He sat with Conrad after that debate and said, "'Kent, we agreed on so much on the farm bill, and I gotta believe that there is a lot we agree … on energy,'" Chambliss said. "And we started talking about it and there is. There's an awful lot and we agreed that there are a lot of Democrats and Republicans that think like we did."

Conrad separately added, "Our goal is to try to break through here."

Reid and McConnell Monday left the door open for reaching a compromise on gas prices.

"Hopefully, we can work something out on a bipartisan basis. I will certainly try," Reid said. He singled out curbing excessive speculation in the oil futures market as something the two sides could agree on and said he plans to offer Republicans market speculation legislation by the end of this week.

There is talk that the measure will have as its base a speculation bill sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Durbin, which includes ideas by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and others.

Reid appeared to give little ground to GOP plans to open more federal waters to oil and gas drilling.

"Instead of proposing legislation, which will just add more to the 68 million unused acres, I think we should try something that might be a little better than that," Reid said. He adopted a claim used by House Democrats in their recent "use it or lose it" legislative push — and heavily refuted by Republicans — that oil companies are sitting on existing federal oil and gas production leases while seeking broader access.

McConnell touted a plan co-sponsored by 44 Senate Republicans that would, among other things, allow for drilling 50 miles off the coastline of states that agree to do so and lift a ban Democrats put in place last year on Western oil shale production.

The goal "was to narrowly craft something that could make a difference and appeal to Democrats," McConnell said.

He said the roots of a compromise could stem from the 10 centrists, including five Democrats "who are open to doing something on the production side."

But finding a compromise will be tricky, as Senate leaders continue to advocate positions regarding domestic oil and gas drilling, oil company tax incentives and other issues that have sharply divided the two parties and provided much political fodder.

"It depends on whether you're interested in leading or whether you're interested in the politics of the issue," Chambliss said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has gotten 2 million hits since May on ads they have run on Web sites promoting the lowest gas prices available locally in North Carolina, Oregon, New Hampshire, Texas, Minnesota and Kentucky, according to a DSCC spokeswoman.

Those are all states Democrats are targeting GOP senators, including McConnell. "We've had solutions out there that have been blocked by Republicans," said DSCC Vice Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey. "The reality is the reality. Their obstinance and intransigence is going to cost them."

The featured Democratic race on the DSCC Web site Monday was the re-election bid of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a member of the 10-person energy caucus and of the Gang of 14 and the only Democrat to vote with Republicans against two energy bills Democratic leaders have brought to the floor this Congress.

That includes a deciding vote in the filibustering of a plan Democrats brought up in December, which led to a scaled-back energy bill that was later approved and signed into law.

In addition to Conrad, Chambliss, Nelson and Landrieu, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., John Thune, R-S.D., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., make up the group.

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