Senate proponents of an omnibus energy bill suffered a major defeat Friday when adversaries successfully blocked the Republican-crafted measure, throwing into doubt congressional passage of comprehensive energy legislation this year. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), however, said he would bring the bill up for “at least one more vote” before the Senate adjourns on Tuesday.

By 57 to 40, Republican-led proponents on Friday fell just shy of the 60 votes or two-thirds of the Senate needed to close off a threatened filibuster and force an up-and-down vote on the energy bill conference report in the Senate. Seven Republicans from New England and Southwest states, plus Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT), joined Democrats in blocking the bill. Failure to head off the mostly Democratic opposition was a setback for the Bush administration and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), the chief architect of the energy conference report.

The energy measure had handily passed out of conference committee (10-3) and cleared the House by a wide margin (245 to 180) early last week, but it hit an expected snag in the Senate mainly on the safe harbor proviso for makers of the gasoline additive MTBE. Both sides agreed that proposals aimed at streamlining the permitting process for producers, promoting the construction of an Alaska gas pipeline from the North Slope to Lower 48 states and mandating compliance with reliability standards were good policy calls.

Frist on Friday initially voted in favor of the cloture motion to end debate, but he then changed his vote so he could preserve under Senate rules the option of calling the bill to the floor for another vote. He said he was “very disappointed that we are two votes short” — this was before he switched his vote — of ending a Democrat-led filibuster. Frist said it would not be the last vote on the legislation this year.

“We’re going to keep voting until we pass it and get it to the president,” Frist said immediately following the defeat. He did not say when a second vote on the bill would come, but some industry analysts were predicting that it might occur Sunday (Nov. 23).

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) indicated the bill still could clear the Senate this year and be sent to President Bush for his signature if retroactive liability protection for MTBE manufacturers, which was strongly opposed by Northeast Republicans, was stripped out of the bill. The MTBE initiative was inserted by Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) during the House-Senate conference on the bill. That was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Daschle, who voted in favor of cloture and supported the energy bill. He said he found much of the bill “objectionable,” but voted for it because of the boost it provided for ethanol production and the farm states.

Immediately following the win by the bill’s opponents, Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada called for the bill to be sent back to conference committee. “We did the Senate a favor. This bill was going nowhere.”

But Frist — prior to the vote — said that sending the energy bill report back to the conference panel “[was] not an option.” He further noted that “we’re not going to pull out pieces of this conference report and pass them separately.”

Democrats, who spearheaded the effort to block the bill, were not declaring victory Friday — at least not publicly. “We’re not here to block energy bills. We’re here to pass good ones,” said a Democratic aide to a Senate committee.

The aide and other Capitol Hill watchers believe there are a number of steps proponents could take to make the bill more palatable. Energy analyst Christine Tezak of Charles Schwab Capital Markets outlined four possible options: 1) Proponents would keep the existing MTBE waiver and simply offer Senate opponents favorable consideration in later bills in exchange for switching their votes; 2) Revise the conference report to exclude the MTBE waiver and send it to House conferees for another vote, but Tezak said it was not clear the House would give up on MTBE; 3) Amend the energy bill conference report to insert it in its entirety into the omnibus appropriations package; or 4) possibly strip out the ethanol and electricity titles from the conference report and include them in the omnibus spending measure, but she believes this last option may be a long shot.

Republicans who voted to block the bill Friday were: Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, John McCain of Arizona, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jon Kyl of Arizona. Approximately 13 Senate Democrats aligned themselves with GOP proponents in support of the energy bill, while three Democrats (including two presidential hopefuls) did not vote — John Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina.

Republicans and Democrats, in rallying to oppose the bill, blasted provisions that would provide $23.5 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for conventional and non-conventional energy sources, the production liability waiver for MTBE manufacturers and what they viewed as proposed rollbacks of federal clean air and water regulations. Some of the proposed giveaways in the bill had nothing to do with energy, critics said. For example, they noted the measure promoted the development of a Louisiana Riverwalk Mall in Shreveport — which would include a “Hooters” restaurant.

Opponents also objected to the bill being negotiated in closed-door sessions by Domenici, Rep.W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-LA) and a handful of other Republicans. Moreover, both Senate and House critics protested that they were given little time to study the entire measure before voting on it.

Responding to the barrage of criticism, Domenici said that Republican negotiators limited the scope of the energy bill talks this year because last year’s “wide-open” negotiations led to a “zero” energy bill. Furthermore, he noted that “all but [the] last 15%” of the proposed energy bill was publicly posted on the Internet weeks before the House and Senate were to vote. “So where was the clandestine bill?”

Domenici warned opponents that tax credits to promote ethanol production and wind energy were a one-time offer and would never come around again if the bill were defeated. He further suggested that a vote against the energy measure was a vote in favor of electricity blackouts.

There is “so much that is objectionable in this legislation,” said McCain on the Senate floor Friday. He called it a “1,200-page monstrosity.” For starters, he argued that there was “no plausible argument” for the provision that would significantly boost the ethanol content requirement of gasoline over the next decade. Demand for ethanol exists only because Congress has created an “artificial market for it.”

Ethanol “does nothing to reduce our fuel consumption,” McCain noted. If anything, it will lead to higher ozone levels in some regions of the country, and will cost $3 a gallon, which he called “highway robbery.”

In a warning to fellow Republicans, McCain said, “Don’t call yourself a fiscal conservative if you vote for this bill,” which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost the federal government more than $31 billion in the upcoming decade. He noted the bill should be called the “Leave No Lobbyist Behind Act of 2003,” rather than the “Energy Policy Act of 2003.”

He also cited the almost-uniform opposition to the bill by the nation’s top newspapers, saying he had never witnessed this before. The conservative Wall Street Journal, in referring to the tax breaks and subsidies in the bill, said the GOP leadership “has greased more wheels than a Nascar pit crew;” The New York Times called it a “dreadful bill” and urged opponents to filibuster it; and The Washington Post called on Democrats and Republicans to join together to “make sure the bill doesn’t become law.”

Jeffords, an independent who voted to block the bill, said “America needs an energy policy, but not this one.” Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) argued that the “general premise of the bill is good…We can deal with those things that are objectionable at a later time.”

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