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Mr. Delay from Texas, meet Mr. Vaughn from Texas

We realize Texas is a big state. (My daughter-in-law grew up in Texas, and that's what she tells me.) But it looks like three or four Texans could get together and work out their legislative differences even if they are from different ends of the state.

We're referring, of course, to the energy bill conference report that has been tied up in the Senate since Thanksgiving. A handful of senators has blocked consideration, ostensibly because of a limited product liability waiver for MTBE.

Last month, Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote a new, less expensive version of the bill that does not contain the MTBE waiver. But House leaders say they won't vote on a bill without the latter.

The two principals in this fight are Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who represents three counties in southwest Houston, and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, who represents a district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

I say this is a Texas fight because Dee Vaughn, president of the National Corn Growers Association, the group that has led the lobbying battle for the bill, hails from Dumas at the northern end of the Panhandle.

DeLay, who was in the termite business before he won election to Congress, has never been a fan of farm programs. He allowed the 2002 farm bill to pass the House because the administration had signed off on the version written by Rep. Larry Combest, another Texan from the Panhandle.

Barton, who took over the Energy and Commerce Committee from retiring Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin, has never had much to say about farm programs.

Both DeLay and Barton believe the oil companies that produced MTBE did so because the fuel additive was considered safe at the time. Now those companies face billions of dollars in lawsuits because of reports MTBE leaked into the groundwater in several states.

They also suspect more than a small element of politics for Senate Democrats who were able to deny President Bush another major legislative victory just after Congress passed the Medicare Reform bill last November.

The National Corn Growers Association has asked the White House to persuade DeLay and Barton to take up the energy “lite” bill, as some have called it, but the administration appears to be reluctant to engage the House leadership on the issue.

It would seem that, as fellow Texans, DeLay, Barton, Vaughn and the president could sit down and work out a solution for the energy bill. But, then, it's a long way from Houston to Dumas, Texas. And it would be a big step for Delay, who appears to think farmers have already received more help than they need.

For farm groups, the urban vs. rural element in the fight may be a sign of things to come as they prepare to defend against new payment limit challenges and write a new farm law in two years.


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