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With gas prices continuing to rise and the November elections approaching, Senate Democrats and Republicans embraced the opportunity this week to square off on energy policy.
Democrats initially expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle, but many Republicans sided with the majority in a 92-4 vote that paves the way for debate on a Democratic measure that would repeal tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies and extend 19 renewable energy tax subsidies. Despite the about-face from Republicans, the debate will likely be contentious and attract a raft of amendments, including proposals designed to score political points.
The Senate is still unlikely to pass the bill, but both sides feel they have winning energy arguments that will resonate with voters, who are paying an average of almost $4 a gallon at the pump.
Democrats expect the debate will help them to highlight the theme that their polices favor the middle class, which they argue has gotten short shrift under the tax regime enacted during the George W. Bush administration.
“Last year, Big Oil raked in $137 billion in profits — more than ever before — but still received billions in taxpayers-funded giveaways,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the floor Monday.
“The only real way to bring down prices at the pump is to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil,” Reid continued. “That will take additional responsible, domestic oil exploration and smart investments in clean energy technology.
“Repealing wasteful subsidies won’t cause oil and gas prices to rise,” Reid said. “But reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil will cause prices to fall.”
A Senate Democratic aide said: “We think we have the upper hand talking about oil subsidies. People blame oil companies for high gas prices and don’t think they should be getting the tax break.”
Republicans, who will continue to oppose the bill and may attempt to filibuster it before a vote on final passage, believe that Democratic ideas all too often involve raising taxes, which they argue will simply be passed on to consumers as even higher energy prices.
“If they had their way, gas prices would be even higher,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor, adding that he thinks Democrats are “out of touch” with the American people on the issue.
“How does this help the American people now?” McConnell asked rhetorically. “Of course it doesn’t.”
A GOP aide said one thing that can be done is to complete the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline. It’s expected that an amendment to approve the project will likely be proposed to the bill.