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Opponents Block Energy Bill In Senate

By H. Josef Hebert
The Associated Press
   WASHINGTON   —   Opponents of a massive energy bill on Friday blocked the Senate from taking a final vote and sending the measure to President Bush.
    On a 57-40 vote, supporters failed by three votes to cut off debate on the legislation, which they said would increase and diversify energy production and provide farmers an economic boost by expanding use of corn-based ethanol.
    They needed 60 votes under the Senate's rules to close debate on the bill and move on to a final vote. The House passed the legislation earlier this week.
    "This will not be the last vote on this bill," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "We're going to keep voting until we pass it and get it to the president."
    Opponents of the bill waged a frantic campaign for votes to derail the legislation, arguing the $31 billion bill   —   crafted largely in closed-door Republican negotiations with the House   —   was too expensive and amounted to a collection of subsidies to special interests.
    Six Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.
    Frist, who was obligated to change his vote and cast it with the majority so the measure can be brought up again, vowed not to abandon the legislation. But he could not say when it would be back for another try.
    Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who voted for ending debate, called the defeat "unfortunate." He said Senate energy negotiators "were undercut by manipulation by the House Republican leadership" that pressed for measures in the bill that many senators could not accept.
    Approval of an energy bill has been a top priority for President Bush, who repeatedly called on Congress to finish the legislation this year.
    As opponents to the bill appeared to gain strength, Vice President Dick Cheney began calling GOP senators urging them not to abandon the president on the issue. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a former senator from Michigan, was dispatched to Capitol Hill in the hours before the voting.
    Republican supporters of the bill called it balanced and said it would provide for diversifying the nation's energy sources.
    But a growing number of senators   —   both Democrats and at least six Republicans   —   criticized the bill as too costly, agiveawayy to energy industries, and bad for the environment.
    A particular target was a provision that would shield manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from product liability lawsuits. The issue was key in getting five GOP senators from New England, where MTBE contamination of water supplies has been a major concern, to oppose the legislation.
    The bill has "glaring examples of industry favors," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another opponent. He called it a "Thanksgiving turkey" stuffed with goodies for special interests.
    Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., also objected to the bill's price tag   —   an estimated $31 billion over 10 years   —   arguing that the measure exceeds the congressional budget ceiling.
    The debate is over "allowing this country to get back into the business of producing energy," countered Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. But that argument didn't sway enough senators to approve the first overhaul of the nation's energy agenda in more than a decade.
    Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said there were some good things in the bill, but he strongly opposed provisions to mandate use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline nationwide and the bill's handling of MTBE.
    Democrats also objected to the way the bill had been crafted   —   largely behind closed doors in negotiations among Senate and House Republicans.
    "It really doesn't help the Senate to prolong the inevitable. The inevitable is this bill is history. It's not going to go any place," said Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic whip.
    The ethanol issue was viewed as critical for the bill to pass. The bill would double the use of ethanol, an economic boon to farm states.
    But while farm-state Democrats joined Republicans in support of the measure, senators from the far West and Northeast, who were opposed to the ethanol requirements, added to the strength of the opposition.
    The bill contains hundreds of items sought by energy lobbyists, including tax breaks for oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries, plus tax credits for renewable energy and conservation.
    Among its major provisions:
      —  Tax breaks of $13 billion for oil, gas and coal industries, and $5.5 billion for renewable energy sources   —   wind, solar and biomass.
      —  Mandatory reliability requirements for high-voltage power lines and incentives to spur power line production.
      —  A requirement to double ethanol production for gasoline to 5 billion gallons a year by 2012.
      —  Authority and financial help, including $18 billion in loan guarantees, to build a pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska's North Slope.
      —  Tax incentives for improving energy efficiency of homes and appliances, including a tax credit for buying hybrid gas-electric cars.
      —  A requirement to speed up permits and ease some environmental rules to promote energy development on public lands.
      —  A 10-year, $1 billion program to deal with "coastal erosion" for six states with offshore oil and gas production. Louisiana would get more than half of the money.