This Week in the Congress

by Myron Ebell on March 11, 2012

in Blog

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Senate Takes Up Highway Bill; Pickens Payoff Plan Hangs in the Balance

A logjam on the highway bill broke loose Wednesday afternoon when a unanimous consent agreement was reached in the Senate. The agreement provided for votes on twenty germane amendments and ten non-germane amendments, equally divided between amendments offered by Democrats and Republicans.

Voting on the non-germane amendments, which require a sixty-vote supermajority to pass, commenced at just after 2 PM on Thursday, 8th March. A number of the amendments concern energy policies.

First up was Senator David Vitter’s (R-La.) amendment (#1535) to require more oil and gas drilling in federal offshore areas. It failed on a vote of 46 to 42. Senator Susan Collins’s (R-Me.) amendment (#1660) to delay the EPA’s job-killing Boiler MACT Rule was defeated on a 52 to 46 vote.

The major drama of the day was provided by two very different amendments on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) offered an amendment (#1817) that would further delay permitting the 1700-mile pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the Gulf States. It would also ban any oil moving through the pipeline from being exported. This is truly goofy, as my CEI colleague Marlo Lewis explains here. Wyden’s amendment was defeated overwhelmingly, 34 to 64.

Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) then offered amendment #1537 that would permit the Keystone XL pipeline upon enactment of the legislation. The amendment failed on a 56 to 42 vote.

Eleven Democrats voted yes on the Hoeven amendment. Two Republicans, Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is recovering from a stroke, and John Thune (R-SD), missed all the votes.  Assuming they both would have voted yes on the Hoeven amendment, support in the Senate to approve the Keystone pipeline is getting close to the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles.

The amendment might even have passed without some last minute lobbying by President Barack Obama. Politico reported and the White House confirmed that the President called several Senators to urge them to vote no on Keystone.

Republicans were quick to attack Obama. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “By personally lobbying against the Keystone pipeline, it means the president of the United States is lobbying for sending North American energy to China and lobbying against American jobs.” Boehner also pointed out that at a meeting in the White House earlier this week the President had pledged to work with Republicans in Congress on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

On Tuesday, 13th March, the Senate will finish voting on amendments and proceed to a final vote on the highway bill, S. 1813. There will be votes on four more amendments related to energy policy.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will offer an amendment (#1812) that would renew for another year a large number of subsidies, including tax credits for wind power, plug-in vehicles, biodiesel, energy-efficient houses, cellulosic ethanol, and energy-efficient appliances. The amendment would also allow investors in windmills to take an investment tax credit immediately if they don’t want to wait around for production tax credits. And it would include biofuels produced from algae to qualify for the cellulosic credit.

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Ks.) will offer amendment #1826 as an alternative to the Stabenow amendment that doesn’t extend these tax subsidies.

Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Richard Burr (R-NC) will offer the Pickens Payoff Plan (H. R. 1380 and S. 1863) as amendment #1782. This would subsidize the manufacture of heavy-duty trucks fueled by natural gas and the construction of natural gas fueling stations.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) will offer a sweeping amendment (#1589) that would end all energy tax subsidies–for renewables, conventional energy, and alternative-fuel vehicles. This amendment is identical to H. R. 3308, introduced by Rep. Mike Pompeo, and S. 2064, introduced by Senator DeMint.

Free market and conservative groups were quick to jump into the debate. A short joint letter opposing the wind and natural gas subsidy amendments was sent to Senators on Wednesday afternoon. Two more detailed joint letters were sent Thursday afternoon. And a number of groups, including Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, and Freedom Action, sent out action alerts to their activist members. Here is the link to Freedom Action’s alert.

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