Cantwell's No Show

Maria Cantwell was ready to make her stand. A press conference had been called for 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, and Washington's junior senator was going to join with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to announce opposition to President Bush's energy plan, which was coming up for a vote later that day.

But Cantwell never showed, and hours later, she was on the Senate floor voting for the bill--a bill her earlier press release criticized for its "failure to craft a long-term energy policy that strikes a balance between conservation and supply needs."

Translation: The bill weakens fuel efficiency standards and gives the industry-friendly Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more power to deregulate electricity markets while weakening consumer protections, not to mention the billions in "tax credits" for oil, gas, and electricity industries and a multi-million-dollar giveaway for Iowa corn farmers.

But taking a page from the "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em" school of political theory, Cantwell and fellow Washington Democrat Patty Murray opted to try to sweeten the pot in exchange for their grudging support. And sweeten they did: Their last-minute politicking gave the Bonneville Power Administration the authority to borrow up to $1.3 billion to update the Northwest's deteriorating transmission grid, a move they say will help fend off energy crises like the one the region faced last year.

"On balance, the bill makes important investments in the Northwest economy and environment," Cantwell spokesperson Jed Lewison says, adding, "The grid hasn't been updated since 1987." According to Lewison, Cantwell believes that the energy bill, while flawed, is essential to securing a healthy energy future for the region, and will help stimulate the state's sluggish economy. He also pointed to an additional $1 billion in research money for new green energy technologies the bill supports for Washington State.

"That notwithstanding, she still thinks that there are tons of flaws in the bill," Lewison says.

Those flaws were too much for some of Cantwell's colleagues, including Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who were among the eight Democrats and three Republicans to vote against the final bill. Feinstein spokesperson Howard Gantman said Feinstein cast a "No" vote based on the principles that Cantwell seemed ready to stand up for at that press conference.

The bill passed 88-11. Now it goes to a conference committee, where the different versions of the energy plan passed by the House and the Senate will be reconciled.

But make no mistake--last week's vote was another major victory for Bush, handed to him on a platter by Senate Democrats, including our two senators.