Senate Passes Energy Bill Without House Tax Package

Charles E. Schumer, left, Harry M. Reid and other Democratic senators fell one vote short of ending GOP stall tactics.
Charles E. Schumer, left, Harry M. Reid and other Democratic senators fell one vote short of ending GOP stall tactics. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

The Senate passed an energy bill with overwhelming bipartisan support last night but only after a Republican filibuster threat forced Democratic leaders to ditch the bill's tax package, which would have extended tax breaks for wind and solar projects while reducing breaks for the biggest oil and gas companies.

The revised bill, approved by a 86 to 8 vote, would boost fuel efficiency standards for new automobile fleets to 35 miles a gallon by 2020, increase energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, and set a mandate for the vastly expanded use of ethanol and other biofuels.

The measure will go back to the House and, if approved, to President Bush, who said last night that he would sign it.

"Could this bill have been better? Of course it could have," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), comparing it to a split decision in a boxing match. But he said it was still "a good bill."

The final bill represents a major setback for the automobile industry, which had fought a losing battle to blunt new fuel efficiency standards. Those standards, the first increase in 32 years, had widespread support because of high oil prices and concerns about U.S. dependence on imported petroleum.

The bill is a major victory for farm states, which would benefit from the mandated use of 36 billion gallons a year of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels by 2022. Critics say, however, that the new mandate could strain water resources, boost food prices, worsen fertilizer runoff problems and cost scores of billions of dollars in federal subsidies over the next decade.

Wind, solar and environmental groups expressed dismay about the death of the bill's tax package and the earlier shelving of a requirement that utilities rely on renewable energy for at least 15 percent of their power generation. Wind and solar firms said they needed an extension of tax credits and incentives to make plans.

"For the wind industry, it looks like coal in our Christmas stocking," said Gregory Wetstone, senior director for government and public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association.

Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said the Senate had given "the green light to more-efficient cars and renewable fuels but has a red light for renewable electricity from wind, solar and other clean sources."

Elizabeth Martin-Perera, climate policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Congress should be congratulated for taking the first step in the sprint to solve global warming." But she added, "We're disappointed that there were some things left on the cutting-room floor."

Earlier in the day, the Senate failed for a second time to block a Republican-led filibuster on the energy bill with its tax provisions intact. GOP leaders made a stand against a proposed $21.8 billion, 10-year tax package that had the support of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).

The bid to end debate failed even though Democratic presidential candidates -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) -- returned from the campaign trail early yesterday morning to support the bill. They rushed back to Iowa in time for a debate yesterday afternoon.

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