Bush and GOP Lose First Round on Pork-Filled Energy Bill
Sanity and the public interest returned to the US Capitol for a few hours yesterday as the Senate was unable to overcome a filibuster against the Bush/GOP energy bill. The bill, aptly described by Senator John McCain as the ďLeave No Lobbyist Behind Act of 2003Ē for its profligate use of pork stalled in the Senate when a vote to terminate a bipartisan filibuster fell two votes short of the necessary 60 votes to force a vote.
It is assumed that the major reason for the billís failure so far is the provision to shield fuel additive makers of MTBE from liability for cleanups and damages arising from groundwater mitigation measures initiated by state and local governments against service station operators, as well as the effort by the GOP drafters of the bill to win votes by buying off Senators with pork for their states, greatly increasing the cost of the bill over what the White House even wanted. Other reasons for the billís failure so far were the lack of conservation measures in the bill and the lack of fixes to prevent future blackouts and energy market manipulation that plagued California.
The Republican-drawn measure was drafted behind closed doors with little input from Democrats. With $96 billion in tax breaks and subsidies, it is designed to spur investments in the energy sector and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Domenici blamed controversy over MTBE, a gasoline additive that has contaminated drinking water nationwide, for motivating the opposition. The bill would ban lawsuits against MTBE makers that are filed after Sept. 5, 2003, essentially annulling more than 20 lawsuits, including a major one by New Hampshire.
Domenici admitted that the bill's support began to soften after lawmakers highlighted liability protections for makers of MTBE. The MTBE provision is "the straw that broke the camel's back," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Domenici had hoped a $6 billion subsidy to Midwest farmers, and other sweeteners, would sway opponents. The strategy worked on Daschle, who is up for re-election in 2004. Daschle said he supports the bill because it would double the use of ethanol, a corn-based gasoline substitute, a boon to South Dakota farmers.
Both the White House and the Senate GOP leadership are going to try again next week to gain the additional votes to break the filibuster by dropping the MTBE liability exemption and putting additional pork in the bill to buy off additional senators. It is not clear if that will work however. And Bill Fristís warning that pet projects (read: pork) will be stripped out of the bill if its doesnít pass next week falls not only on deaf ears, but also reflects a misreading of why senators voting against the bill, namely that the bill was a pork-filled boondoggle that does little to make us more energy independent in the future.
Bill supporters are lobbying Democrats from Michigan, Delaware, Hawaii and Indiana to switch their votes with promises of future legislative goodies, according to Republican aides and industry lobbyists.
Frist warned lawmakers that pet projects in the bill won't be revived later if the legislation is rejected. "We're either going to pass this energy bill now or the individual provisions that many senators favor are not going to become law. It's as simple as that," Frist warned.
But it was the abundance of pet projects that drew the ire of such fiscal conservatives as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire.
"This was an energy bill that busted the budget," Sununu complained, adding that it "distorts markets, distorts investments and tries to micromanage the American economy."
"We can put together a bill that does the right thing for the country without busting the budget and without relying on a grab bag of interest provisions or subsidies that target certain areas of the country or particular industries in order to get votes," Sununu said.
The bill failed with three Democratic senators not voting, (Kerry, Edwards, and Ernest Hollings) who could vote against the cloture motion next week making the job tougher for the White House to push a vote through. Plus, a coalition of Democrats and six key Republicans are united against the GOP-drafted bill and are insisting that they will hold together in opposition.
"This legislation does very little to prevent future blackouts, nothing to protect consumers from the manipulation and gaming that was experienced during the Western energy crisis," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor.
"There is nothing to improve our nation's energy security by increasing fuel economy standards," she said. "In short, from a California perspective, I see this bill as one giant giveaway to special interests, particularly the ethanol, the MTBE, the oil, the gas, and the nuclear power industries of this country." "Yes, the fight is not over, but I have a certain degree of confidence we will prevail," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called the bill "a grab bag of special-interest projects."
McCain, one of the six Republicans who helped thwart the bill, called it "The No Lobbyist Left Behind Act of 2003" and said it was filled with "pork." He objected to the ethanol provisions as well, saying ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption and would hurt air quality in Phoenix.
The GOP leadership and the White House will intensify their efforts to buy off votes with the MTBE exemption removal and more pork, but it may not work.
Domenici said he would spend the next several days trying to work on a handful of Democrats and Republicans who he believes could be persuaded to change their votes. But time is fast running out, with the Senate preparing to adjourn for the year perhaps as soon as next week.
But opponents of the bill said many senators had already resisted offers to switch their votes. Some even received calls from the president from London pressuring them to back the bill, several Democrats said.
"The six Republicans were offered a whole lot of things beforehand," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "They said no, they didn't like the bill."
There are many reasons to be against this bill, but it is troubling to see the roster of Democratic senators who voted for the pork and failed policies in this bill.
Thirteen Democrats voted with the GOP leadership to end debate, most from energy-producing Southern states and Midwest states that would benefit from the ethanol provision: Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson of South Dakota; Max Baucus of Montana; John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota; Mark Dayton of Minnesota; Tom Harkin of Iowa; Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas; Zell Miller of Georgia; and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Breaux and Baucus were the only Democrats who were allowed to work on the bill, so their support is understandable, as is the support from those who have corn producers in their states, given the ethanol provisions. But why exactly are the just-elected Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor voting for this bill? Well, as the Center for Public Integrity noted yesterday, it could be because Landrieu was bought and paid for by the coal producers with over $120,000 of campaign contributions.
Letís hope that when this bill comes up again for a vote next week, some of these Democrats show as much spine and concern for the public interest as the six brave GOP senators showed in going against the Bush White House.