Senators leading the charge to repeal $5.4 billion in ethanol subsidies sound cautiously confident they will prevail in next week’s dueling votes. But it won’t be an easy climb to 60 votes: The powerful ethanol industry can point to an alternative bill that shows it’s reforming—and the White House is on board with that effort.
The Senate on Tuesday easily defeated, 40-59, a measure to repeal the subsidies and the corresponding tariff. Its chief Democratic sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, lamented that the way the measure’s cosponsor, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., forced a vote on their bill rankled Democratic leadership and other members of the party.
“We think we had 60 votes before this all started, and then it started and it became clear we didn’t have 60 votes because of the process that Coburn used,” Feinstein said shortly after the measure failed. When asked if she could get 60 votes next week, she responded: “I think so. If we keep the Republicans and get the Democrats.”
The Democrats that Feinstein and others will court include those who have expressed opposition to or concerns about ethanol subsidies but voted against Coburn’s amendment on procedural grounds. Among them are Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California and Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The Senate is expected to vote back-to-back on at least two measures next week: the Feinstein-Coburn bill that eliminates the subsidies and a measure sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. The latter bill would phase out the subsidies over several years and divert the saved money to infrastructure to help ensure that biofuels can penetrate the market. Ethanol proponents stress that they need market help more than they need subsidies.
Four fence-sitting Democrats typically wary of ethanol subsidies—Sens. Thomas Carper and Christopher Coons of Delaware and Cardin and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland—released a joint statement Tuesday evening indicating that their votes are very much in play.
“We voted against the Coburn amendment [Tuesday] because of the manner this issue was brought to the Senate floor,” they wrote. “We have been assured by the Democratic leadership that the Senate will vote on this issue later this week, allowing us to consider and debate the substance of this important policy decision.”
The senators indicated that they want to help the advanced biofuels industry, which is a tenet of the Thune-Klobuchar bill.
We look forward to that vote and remain committed to supporting the growth of an advanced biofuels industry and other alternative-energy sources in our country.”
White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement to National Journal Daily on Monday that President Obama opposes repealing the subsidies and is open to “new approaches that meet today’s challenges and save taxpayers money.”
Stevens would not comment on whether the White House supports the Thune-Klobuchar bill, but it’s safe to say that the administration is more open to that measure than to the Feinstein-Coburn bill.
Olga Belogolova contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 15, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.