The Senate yesterday stripped from its massive trade bill a provision that would have allowed the president to impose a tax on imported oil to lessen U.S. dependence on petroleum from the Middle East.
The 55 to 41 vote was a major setback for Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), who argued that the measure was needed to stop "our dangerous drift toward renewed dependence on OPEC oil."
He cited studies that showed a decrease in domestic production and a growing dependence on foreign oil that is expected to reach 50 percent of consumption by 1990.
Bentsen had the support of senators from oil-producing states of the West and Southwest.
But he ran into the opposition of a bipartisan coalition headed by Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). The coalition included environmental, industry and farm groups, aided by the White House and senators from oil-consuming states of the Northeast. They attacked the Bentsen proposal as special-interest legislation for the oil industry that would result in higher prices for American consumers.
Nonetheless, Bentsen said the vote showed growing congressional support for measures to cut dependence on foreign oil. He contrasted the 41 votes his measure received yesterday with the 15 votes that an oil import tax bill got last year.
Under the Bentsen proposal, the president would be required to cut oil imports any time projections for the next three years show that consumption of foreign oil goes above 50 percent of the total. The president could choose from a broad menu of options, including a tax on oil imports, conservation programs, gas rationing, incentives to domestic producers or the relaxation of environmental rules.
In fighting for his amendment, Bentsen raised the specter of skyrocketing gas prices, lines at the pumps, inflation and economic stagnation as a result of the United States' growing dependence on foreign oil. He also cited the Iran-Iraq war and political instability in the Mideast as reasons to press for a lessened U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"Oil is really the plasma of the American economy," Bentsen said.
"There probably never has been a time in our history when the dangers of dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf were more apparent," he added. "There is a war in the Gulf, ships are being attacked, mines are being laid, the superpowers are bidding for influence, Silkworm missiles are being set up in the Straits of Hormuz and there is talk of a 'preventive strike' against those missiles. Kuwaiti tankers have suddenly sprouted American flags and the names of New Jersey beach resorts."
In urging support for his measure, Bentsen asked senators to show "that our foreign policy is not going to be jerked around by the Emir of Kuwait."
After the vote, he told Texas reporters that oil workers who are losing jobs because of the influx of low-price foreign oil should "go talk to the president," who opposed his proposal.
To try to win over the president's opposition "made it very much an uphill fight," he said. He also faced a split in the ranks of the oil industry, with major suppliers opposing the Bentsen measure because they are deeply involved in foreign oil fields.
But Bentsen acknowledged he was able to gain support because of his position as chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, which handles tax and trade legislation.
The opposition leaders, Bradley and Packwood, are members of the Finance Committee, however. They accused Bentsen of ceding congressional lawmaking powers to the president by allowing him to decide how to cut American use of foreign oil.
"It expands presidential authority in a way that is overly broad and unnecessary. It is a gross abdication of legislative responsibility," Bradley said.
Packwood said the measure would allow the president to end bans on oil drilling in wilderness areas, give back the oil depletion allowance to the industry, or impose rationing, tariffs or quotas.
He added that the Bentsen amendment would create "an extraordinary windfall" for major oil producers that will force Congress to re-enact a tax on windfall profits.