The National Energy Policy Act of 2003 is neither as good a bill as its supporters say nor as detrimental as its detractors claim, but that may make little difference in it becoming law.

As I write this, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has been speaking against the bill on C-SPAN for 30 minutes. The senator says the EPA-mandated use of ethanol-blended gasoline has led to more smog, not less, in southern California.

While her figures may be subject to interpretation, Feinstein's comments nevertheless were emblematic of the struggle the legislation faces before it could pass the Senate. (The House approved the energy bill conference report 246-180 Nov. 18, and President Bush said he would sign it once it clears the Senate.)

Like other senators before and after her, Feinstein condemned the bill's exemption of MTBE from product liability lawsuits. Using the gasoline additive's exemption as a rallying cry, Feinstein and other Democratic senators say Exxon and other MTBE manufacturers should not be let off the hook for contaminating the groundwater.

Senators also criticized the bill's failure to provide more incentives for electricity generated by wind and a new natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Midwest, its tax credits for oil and gas and ethanol producers, its failure to require more upgrades for the national power grid, its weakening of the Clean Air Act and its $31 billion price tag.

Supporters, meanwhile, began calling it a jobs bill to try to give senators more cover for voting for it.

At press time (this is being written early because of the holiday-shortened printing schedule), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist planned a Nov. 21 vote on a motion to cut off debate.

The National Corn Growers Association was also urging members to contact their senators because of the prospects of two years of work on ethanol incentives going up in smoke.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the House-Senate energy bill conference committee chairman, said he had the 60 votes needed for a cloture motion. But he also warned opponents that they would “have given up and abandoned ethanol forever” if they succeed in filibustering the bill.

Rather than lose ethanol, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., announced he would vote for the energy bill. But at least six Republican senators from the Northeast said they would vote against cloture.

It's that uncertainty that was keeping the future of the energy bill in doubt. Earlier in this week, Senate Republicans thought they had enough votes to cut off debate on the nomination of Tom Dorr to be undersecretary of agriculture for rural development. They were three votes shy.

Aside from the interesting spectacle of watching Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley defend a farmer for skirting payment limit regulations, the defeat was a sad day for a man whose biggest shortcoming may have been his party membership. But that will be nothing compared to the fallout if the energy bill bites the dust.