Speedy passage of a slimmed-down Senate energy bill seemed all but assured Thursday night after Democratic leaders agreed to scrap the controversial $21.8 billion tax package that Senate Republicans and President Bush opposed.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) removed the contentious tax title after Democrats early Thursday fell one vote shy of the 60-vote threshold needed to close off debate and bring the energy measure (HR 6) to the floor. This was the second time in less than a week that Democrats lost a procedural vote to move the bill forward.

It was a “good, hard-fought battle. I’m disappointed [that] we didn’t pick up one more vote,” Reid said on the Senate floor following the vote.

Bowing to intense Senate Republican and White House pressure, Reid offered a bare-bones bill that includes provisions garnering broad support — an increase in the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, greater production of renewable fuels (ethanol and biofuels) and improved energy efficiency for buildings and government. “What we’re going to wind up with is still historic,” he said.

“We currently expect the House leadership to…vote on the Senate’s offering [without any changes] and send the bill to President Bush,” possibly by next week, said energy analyst Christine Tezak of Stanford Group Co.

The vote was a major victory for the energy industry, Senate Republicans and the president, who objected to the multi-billion-dollar tax package, which would have been funded by repealing existing oil and natural gas tax breaks. The Republicans, who first blocked the energy bill last Friday, also forced Democrats to scrap another highly disputed provision that would have required utilities to generate at least 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 13; Dec. 10).

Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led the charge in the Senate against the $21.8 billion tax package and the renewable electricity standard (RES). The removal of the tax title and RES “will likely save the energy bill for this year,” he said. Domenici noted he could “guarantee” that the stripped-down energy bill — consisting of just CAFE, a renewable fuels standard and measures to boost energy efficiency — would be signed by the president.

Prior to the procedural vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Democrats were “on the verge of real achievement” with the bill’s provisions to increase fuel economy and renewable fuel production, but he added that the “enormous” tax package “doomed” the legislation. Although Democrats removed the controversial RES, they “made the tax hike even bigger than [what] it was,” he noted. .

Reid said many Republicans opposed the bill and tax package simply because the president threatened a veto. “We can like things even though the president may not like [it],” he told the Senate. “We have to flex our legislative muscle and do the right thing.”

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