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"Hooters And Polluters" Energy Bill Defeated For Now

by J.R. Pegg

Energy Bill Bankrupts Our Future
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and Senate supporters of the energy bill suffered a setback today, as they failed to muster the 60 votes needed to end debate and force a vote on the controversial legislation. Majority Leader Bill Frist blasted opponents for blocking the legislation and vowed to try again, but critics say it is time the Republican leadership admitted defeat and abandoned the bill.

"We did the Senate a favor -- this bill was going nowhere," said Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "It really does not help the Senate to prolong the inevitable. The inevitable is this bill is history."

Frist, who prior to the cloture vote warned colleagues that "this vote is the vote on the energy bill," changed his vote and his tune once defeat was acknowledged. The Majority Leader switched his vote in order to retain the option of another vote on the legislation.

The final tally, which was 57 to 40, fell three votes short of forcing a final vote on the bill. Six Republicans and Independent Senator James Jeffords of Vermont joined Democrats to defeat the motion. Thirteen Democrats sided with 44 Republicans in the attempt to end debate and force a vote. The House passed the energy bill earlier this week.

Supporters of the legislation admitted that the vote reflected a deep divide over provisions concerning two gasoline additives -- ethanol and methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

The bill's mandated doubling of ethanol use attracted several Democrats from farm states, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who admitted that much of the bill was not worth supporting.

House Republicans had also added a "Safe Harbor" provision to the bill that would protect MTBE manufacturers from class-action lawsuits. Cleanup of water supplies contaminated by MTBE has been estimated at nearly $30 billion.

But that provision and the $24 billion in tax subsidies -- with more than two thirds earmarked for coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries -- proved too much for five Northeast Republican senators and Arizona Republican John McCain.

"Usually when I look at appropriation bills, it's in the millions, or even the hundreds of millions of dollars. But this is in the billions," McCain said.

McCain dubbed the legislation "the Hooters and polluters bill" for special-interest pork added to the bill, including financing for an energy-efficient shopping center in Shreveport, Louisiana, that would include a Hooters restaurant. Senate Democrats quickly adopted the nickname for the bill.

Republicans Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snow, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island joined McCain in opposing the bill.

The MTBE provision was the "overriding reason for failure," Daschle said. "If this provision was not included, this bill would be passed by the Senate today and enacted into law."

The controversy over MTBE and the tax subsidies in the bill even prompted some Democrats with much to gain from the ethanol mandate to oppose the bill.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, stressed that he is a firm supporter of ethanol but said the energy bill is "fundamentally unfair and unjust."

The legislation undermines environmental protections, does not address fuel economy standards, and contains far too many giveaways to corporate interests, said Durbin, who added that every major environmental group in the United States opposes the bill.

"I am no babe in the woods... I have an appetite for pork like every member in the Senate and the House," Durbin said. "But if giveaways turn out to be a substitute for energy policy, we have defrauded the American people."

The cost of the bill proved a key factor in generating opposition within the Senate. "Do not call yourself a fiscal conservative and vote for this bill," McCain told colleagues today. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would cost some $30 billion over ten years.

McCain took in particular aim at the ethanol mandate, which doubles the use of the corn based fuel additive to five billion gallons a year.

"Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve our air quality," McCain said. "It is a product that would not exist if Congress did not create an artificial market for it."

Supporters of the bill warned farm state senators that they could ill afford to vote against the legislation because of the ethanol mandate.

"We have worked harder for the farmers of America than anyone in history," said Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and cochair of the conference committee that wrote the final bill. "The Democrats are leading a parade to kill the most important provision ever thought up for the farmers."

The ethanol provision within the energy bill "is the best thing for renewable fuels and ethanol that we have had in front of Congress in 25 years," added Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. "We either pass this bill now or the good provisions in it for ethanol are lost forever."

And Daschle was not the only Democrat enticed by the ethanol mandate to support the bill -- Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and North Dakota Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan were among the 13 Democrats who voted to end debate on the bill.

Daschle blamed "manipulations by the House leadership" for inserting controversial provisions, including the MTBE safe harbor rider, that were not in either the House or the Senate versions of the energy bill.

The MTBE provision "trumped the Republican party's own legislative strategy," said Daschle, who suggested that the provision be stripped from the conference report.

Daschle recommended that such a revised conference report be added to a massive omnibus spending bill set for consideration this weekend.

It is unclear where Frist and the Republican leadership go from here, as revising the conference report would require renewed negotiations with the House. But the Majority Leader told colleagues immediately after the vote that "this will not be the last vote that we have on this bill."

"We will keep voting until we pass it," Frist said. "We will have at least one more vote before we leave next week."

But Senate opponents of the bill have pledged to stand firm.

"This bill will not pass," McCain told reporters after the vote. "It will not bear scrutiny and that is why I am convinced they will not be able to buy the votes to get to 60."

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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