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U.S. Energy Bill Sails Through House, Stalls in Senate

WASHINGTON, DC, December 7, 2007 (ENS) – Senate Democrats failed to force a vote today on sweeping energy legislation approved Thursday by the U.S. House of Representatives, as critics balked at provisions that repeal oil industry tax breaks and create a national renewable electricity standard. The vote will force Senate Democrats to allow changes to the bill in order to appease Republicans and makes it unlikely either of the two provisions will survive.

The vote cast a shadow over a legislative victory touted by House Democratic leaders on Thursday afternoon, when the House approved the energy bill by a largely partisan vote of 235-181.

The legislation includes the first significant increase in vehicle fuel economy standards in more than 30 years, mandates a five-fold rise in domestic production of renewable biofuels and contains a host of provisions to increase building and appliance efficiency.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called the measure a “a shot heard round the world for energy independence.”

But the White House almost immediately issued a veto threat and Senate Republicans today rallied against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s attempt to force a quick vote on the plan.

“It is not a serious attempt to make law and it is not a serious attempt at an accomplishment,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who accused House Democrats of sacrificing compromise on the energy bill to make “a partisan point.”

“While [Pelosi] can muscle bills through the House on a party-line vote, it doesn’t work that way over here,” McConnell added.

The House ignored the fact that the Senate rejected the renewable electricity standard and the repeal of oil industry tax breaks when it first considered the bill in June, said Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican.

“We can waste our time or we can do something meaningful,” Domenici said. “There is no bill before us, it is a message and there is a very big difference between a bill and a message.”

Friday’s brief debate reflected a partisan dispute over how the bill was crafted, with Republicans critical of how the Democratic leadership in the House had moved the legislation forward.

Senate Republicans had refused to participate in a conference committee to iron out differences between their original bill and one passed in August by the House. That prompted House Democrats to amend the Senate bill, adding the provisions that have become the focal point of the debate.

“The House decided to go its own way and leave us standing,” Domenici said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, urged his colleagues not to let “procedural disputes” get in the way of the legislation, which he said would help Americans suffering from high gasoline and energy prices.

He cited statistics from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, which analyzed the bill and found it that by 2030 it would reduce U.S. energy use some eight percent, cut carbon dioxide emissions 10 percent and save American consumers more than $450 billion.

“The House has done even better than we did,” Reid said. “Let’s send this critical legislation to President Bush. The time to act is not tomorrow, it is now.”

Democrats fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to force a vote on the measure, opening the door to new debate and likely revisions to the bill.

The Senate may begin working on the legislation next week – if it is altered and passed by the Senate, the legislation will have to be returned to the House for that body’s approval.

Pelosi said she was disappointed by the vote but ready to work with the Senate “on a bipartisan basis to pass a strong energy bill and send it to the president’s desk for his signature.”

Reid in particular criticized opposition to the renewable electricity standard, which would require large investor-owned electric utilities obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Four percent of the total can be achieved through energy conservation measures.

“That doesn’t sound like anything that is too big a hill to climb,” Reid said.

But Republicans in the Senate and the House contend the renewable electricity standard is unrealistic and overly favors wind energy. They echoed industry concerns that it will cause rate hikes for many Americans, particularly those in the Southeast.

The plan is “physically impossible” for some states, Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican said during Thursday’s debate in the House.

House Republicans also rallied against the $21 billion tax package attached to the bill, which now looks likely to be removed by the Senate.

The package would fund tax credits for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, with support also earmarked for fuel cell development, clean coal technology as well as commercial and residential efficiency measures.

Much of the tax package would be paid for by the repeal of several oil industry tax breaks, potentially costing the industry more than $13.5 billion.

“It is Orwellian logic to say gas prices are too high, therefore we ought to raise taxes on the oil and gas industry,” said Representative Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the measure would do little to boost domestic production of energy, highlighting the lack of support for nuclear power.

“Why can’t we talk about nuclear energy on the floor of the United States House of Representatives when we know it is the cleanest source of fuel for our future?” Boehner asked. “It is not in this bill.”

Proponents argued the bill would spark the innovation and set the goals needed to curb the nation’s thirst for oil and gas.

The legislation will “turn the page on generation of an energy policy of drill and drill, consume and consume,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. “A policy that shows reckless denial of the environmental damage … and a cavalier disregard to national security.”

House Democrats also took issue with Republican complaints about how the bill was crafted.

Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said, “It is a process brought about in good part by the lack of interest of the White House and, very frankly, the incompetence, indifference and the arrogance of the other body.”

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