An unusual Senate coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans has mustered enough votes to block a massive energy bill--at least for the time being. In a procedural vote on Nov. 21, proponents of the $30-billion-plus measure fell two votes short of the 60 they needed to cut off debate, effectively barring passage.
The outcome was a defeat for President Bush, who supported the energy measure, and Senate energy committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who drafted much of the legislation.
Frist seeks another vote on bill soon
But the energy bill may not be dead yet. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he would call for at least one more vote early next week to end debate on the legislation and get it approved. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leader of the anti-bill contingent, said he thought his side has a good chance of holding enough support to keep the measure from passing, but said the bill's advocates would try to "pick off" the two additional votes they need, by promising those lawmakers legislative favors in the coming omnibus spending package.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted with Schumer, said that the bill's allies were trying to snare votes. "The store is open," McCain said. "The auction still goes on."
Although Democrats grumbled that they were cut out of much of the bill's drafting, the votes to end debate on it lined up more by region than party. Farm Belt Senators of both parties, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) supported the bill, in large part because of its provision to more than double production of ethanol, a fuel additive made from corn.
On the other hand, New England Republicans and Democrats voted to block the package, partly because of provisions that they viewed as harmful to the environment. A particular target was the liability protection the bill provided to makers of the gasoline additive MTBE.
Some of the bill's foes had a more wide-ranging criticism. . McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted it as "a grab bag of special-interest projects" and has dubbed it the "no lobbyist left behind" bill. Schumer said, "The bill seemed to feel that pork was a substitute for a policy."
Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a strong conservative, objected to the measure's high price tag, noting that its tax breaks totaled $25 billion, triple the total President Bush had proposed. "This is an energy bill that busted the budget," Sununu charged.
Schumer helped lead opposition
Business interests were disappointed at the outcome. National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Mark Whitenton criticized the vote as the "irresponsible politics of obstruction" and said the measure would have helped the economy. He said, "Considering that American manufacturing has lost nearly 3 million jobs the last three years, I find it simply astounding that a Senate minority would kill this admittedly imperfect but hugely beneficial energy bill."
The energy bill's story may have more chapters, however.Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), an opponent of the measure, cautioned, "This is not the last battle. There is much more to happen on this legislation."
(Photos courtesy of Office of Sen. Bill Frist and Office of Senator Charles Schumer)