House lawmakers voted out the omnibus Republican-crafted energy bill by a wide margin Tuesday, sending it to the Senate to consider and moving it one step closer to becoming law. If the measure clears the Senate this week, as top Republicans expect, it will be the first major overhaul of the national energy policy in a decade.

The favorable House vote (246 to 180) was a major victory for Republicans on Capitol Hill and for President Bush, who has lobbied extensively for major energy legislation since he took office. The bill, which was supported by 46 House Democrats, offers royalty relief for offshore oil and gas production, speeds up permitting of drilling on public lands, provides tax breaks and incentives for all forms of energy (oil and gas, renewable fuels, nuclear energy and clean coal technology), calls for construction of an Alaska gas pipeline, reinforces light-handed regulation of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and bans fraudulent and manipulative behavior in energy markets (See NGI’s Daily Gas Price Index, Nov. 18).

“I congratulate my House colleagues for their swift consideration and strong support for this historic legislation. I am confident of a similar success in the Senate,” said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the energy conference committee.

House Democrats heavily criticized the legislation for rolling back the federal clean air and clean water laws and providing pork-barrel tax relief to the energy industry. In scoring the bill, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the legislation would cut revenues flowing to the federal government by $25.7 billion in the upcoming decade, and boost government spending by $5.4 billion over that period. The tax package alone would cost $23.5 billion, it said.

Even as the House debated the bill Tuesday, eyes were on the closely-divided Senate where the energy measure was expected to face more opposition, possibly a filibuster. The Senate could begin debating the bill as early as Tuesday night, said a Capitol Hill aide. A Senate Democrat filibuster of broad energy legislation has been reported as a real threat for weeks, but energy analysts and legislative experts said Tuesday the chances of the Republican-crafted measure clearing the Senate “[were] getting better and better.”

Some Senate Democrats have hinted strongly at the possibility of blocking the bill. Senate Democrats, who had virtually no role in the bill’s negotiations, disagree with Republicans on a number of policy and tax positions in the measure. However, a legislative expert now believes the odds are 75% in favor of the legislation clearing the Senate. There’s enough Democratic support to “carry the day.”

“All of the major farm organizations are lobbying heavily to get senators to vote in favor of the bill” because it would double the production of corn-based ethanol for use in gasoline, he said. “I think the ethanol provisions are making a significant difference…The ethanol provisions [are] a powerful inducement” for Democratic senators from farm states to pass the bill. “Do not understate it. Ethanol is the holy grail of the farm lobby.”

The Senate Democrats will need 41 votes to launch a filibuster of the energy bill. Senate Democrats may pick up some support from Republicans who “have problems with the bill,” said a Capitol Hill aide. A group of moderate Republicans from New England, as well as Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT), are opposed to the measure. “I opposed this bill last summer, and I oppose it now,” said Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) Tuesday. “He’ll support a filibuster if one develops,” a spokeswoman told NGI.

The top Senate Democrat from a farm state is Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who many believe will set the tone for the Democrats when the bill gets to the Senate floor.

Three Democrats — Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, all representing farm states — joined the seven Senate Republican negotiators in voting the omnibus energy bill out of conference committee late Monday. Domenici said the support from Senate Democrats signaled that a filibuster was unlikely.

“I predict we will see the same success in the House and Senate that we saw in the conference [Monday],” he noted.

Dorgan was the sole Senate Democrat conferee to sign the conference report on the bill, however. “That’s not the kiss of death” for the bill, said the legislative expert. Not signing the report were Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Bob Graham (D-FL), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Johnson and Baucus.

“Even before the conference meeting started [Monday], Senate Democrat opposition to the energy bill appeared to be waning,” said analyst Christine Tezak of Charles Schwab Capital Markets. Domenici “indicated…that a vote in the Senate could take place mid-week as Democrats appear to have thrown in the towel on trying to stop it.”

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