By Jonathan Weisman and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 7, 2007
The House yesterday brushed aside a new White House veto threat and handily approved a comprehensive energy bill that would raise automobile fuel-efficiency standards for the first time in 32 years and require increased use of renewable energy sources to generate electricity.
The 235 to 181 vote sends the measure to the Senate today. There, Republicans hope to strip it of tax increases on the oil industry and the renewable-source requirement before a final version goes to President Bush. The White House objects to the bill on multiple fronts, including the prospect of tax boosts on oil companies, saying Bush would veto it.
But with energy prices soaring, lawmakers from both parties expressed strong support for fuel-efficiency standards, which Congress has not changed since the end of the muscle-car era in the mid-1970s. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the package "nothing less than our nation's declaration of independence from foreign sources of energy."
Even House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) -- who assails the measure as a "no-energy" bill and as a tax increase that would raise, not lower, energy costs -- lauded the CAFE (corporate average fuel efficiency) standards as a good and reasonable compromise.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), said: "There is a real appetite to increase CAFE standards. The only question has been how much and how fast." He added: "Everybody understands we need to give Detroit a nudge. We just don't want to push them off a cliff."
Fourteen Republicans voted for the bill. Seven Democrats opposed it.
"In the end, I voted with my heart," said Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), a Navy reservist, who backed the bill. "I'm out of the Navy, but still in the Navy, and I want instability in the Persian Gulf to no longer be a problem for the Pentagon. I really think this will help."
Under the measure, auto manufacturers' vehicle fleets would have to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase over the current requirement. By that same deadline, 15 percent of the electricity generated by the nation's utilities would have to come from renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as well as biomass.
The measure would provide tax incentives to bring about a sevenfold increase in the use of ethanol as a motor fuel by 2022, when a required 36 billion gallons of it would be on the market each year. Two-thirds of those gallons would have to be "cellulosic" -- derived from feedstock such as prairie grass and wood chips, or other non-corn-based biofuels.
The bill also includes appliance and light-bulb standards that would effectively phase out, by the middle of the next decade, the incandescent bulb invented by Thomas Edison.
To finance tax incentives for hybrid cars, ethanol production and renewable-energy development, the bill includes $21 billion in revenue increases, including a rollback of $13.5 billion in tax breaks for the five largest oil companies.
Not included in the energy bill is a clause that would limit the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for emissions from vehicle tailpipes. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The EPA must now issue regulations. The agency is weighing a waiver application that would allow California and a dozen other states to set their own standards.
Automakers and their allies want to make sure that, in the name of reducing greenhouse gases, the EPA does not issue even more demanding fuel-efficiency regulations.
The regulatory issue was singled out by the Bush administration yesterday. A statement of policy from the Office of Management and Budget complained that the energy bill "leaves ambiguous the role" of the EPA. The administration wants the Transportation Department, which traditionally has been more sympathetic to automakers than has the EPA, to have the final say over fuel efficiency.
Critics of the bill took aim at almost every component besides the fuel-efficiency standards. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) said the biofuels target would set a mandate "that can't be met." Others said the renewable-source standard would put an unfair burden on Southeastern states, which are not considered good places for the generation of wind power. Supporters of the bill said, however, that those states are good sites for solar power plants.
Some of the bill's supporters were not enthusiastic about various parts of it.
"It will come as no surprise to anyone in this body that I have some reservations -- to put it mildly -- about how this legislation was assembled. Many have been complicit in the curious process that has yielded an imperfect product," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). "But it is probably the best product achievable."
But environmentalists and those who think that oil imports compromise U.S. national security were enthusiastic.
"Congress hasn't changed fuel-efficiency standards since the age of the eight-track tape player," said Jeremy Symons, director of the National Wildlife Federation's program on global warming. "From the point of view of solving the climate crisis and advancing the clean-energy economy, this is a big down payment on action."
For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), passage of the bill was a hard-fought triumph that took nearly a year to secure. In addition to the broad popularity of the measure's fuel-efficiency standards, the promotion of ethanol won the legislation the allegiance of farm-state lawmakers from both parties.
"We will send our energy dollars to the Middle West and not the Middle East," Pelosi said on the House floor.
But she had to beat back challenges from the House's senior member, Dingell, who has long opposed fuel-efficiency mandates on his home-state auto industry. Democrats on Dingell's committee complained bitterly that Pelosi's handpicked negotiators largely circumvented them as the deal was put together.
Finally, Pelosi had to tamp down a threatened revolt by conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, who were angered by tax increases in the bill that could endanger their political careers.
In that sense, the triumph could be short-lived. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has called for a vote today to break off debate on the energy bill and move it to final passage. Senate Democratic leaders expressed strong support for the measure and will push hard for the 60 votes needed to break a threatened filibuster.
"We've got a chance, and America is watching," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "They know what the price of gasoline is, what the price of a barrel of oil has gone up to, and they know that global warming is a reality. They expect the Congress to move forward on energy."
The Senate vote is expected to be close. Reid has summoned the chamber's four Democratic presidential candidates from the campaign trail for a motion to defeat a threatened filibuster, but if the Senate cannot muster the 60 votes needed, portions of the bill could be removed. These sections include many of the tax measures and, perhaps, the renewable-energy requirement on utilities.