Refinery bill fails' Lewis is unexpected ally on budget

The House defeated a bill yesterday to ease the permitting process for oil refineries as Democrats and Republicans continued to point fingers about who is ultimately responsible for the current high price of gasoline.

The defeat came on a busy day for GOP leaders as they tried to shore up support among centrist Republicans to pass the annual budget bill after appropriators agreed to support the spending blueprint.

Both bills remain a priority for Republicans in the House, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) pledged to bring the refinery bill back to the floor next week under a rule that would allow for more debate.

At the same time that Republicans in both chambers were struggling to answer election-year concerns about high fuel prices, the budget also remained a difficult test for GOP leaders because centrists and potentially vulnerable incumbents were still reluctant to support it.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) met with centrist Republicans yesterday in Boehner’s office to gauge their support for the bill, members and aides said yesterday, but no breakthroughs were announced as of press time.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who opposed the initial bill on the grounds that it would limit his committee’s ability to write emergency relief legislation that exceeded $4.3 billion, has been an unexpected ally in selling the bill to centrist Republicans.

Anything over the $4.3 billion mark would be subject to a Budget Committee review and a possible point of order on the floor, which would amount to a vote to trim the cost.

Late yesterday afternoon, GOP leaders were still tinkering with the language of the bill, but it appeared as if the emergency-spending-cap provision would remain.

Lewis had agreed Tuesday to shift $6 billion from defense and foreign-aid appropriations to health and education programs in an effort to appease centrist Republicans who had objected to the cuts in the White House budget.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), announced his opposition to the budget bill yesterday.

“I very much appreciate the effort, but I’d like to see them go further,” Castle said.

Boehner and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have continued to push for passage of the budget ever since they were forced to withdraw it last month when negotiations broke down with the appropriators, and both leaders remained confident yesterday that they could bring a bill to the floor soon.

At the time, leadership aides said they were still a long way from ironing out deals with other members of the conference because the leaders had devoted so much time to the conflict between appropriators and conservatives about the emergency spending language and a related fight about the earmarks included in spending bills.

Members of the Appropriations Committee, led by Lewis, accepted a deal last week to include the proposed earmark changes to each of the other authorizing and tax committees, ending a protracted standoff on the rule to bring lobbying reform to the floor. On Tuesday, Boehner suggested that the breakthrough would make it easier for the leaders to bring a budget to the floor.

“We’ve had a lot of conversation on the budget,” Boehner said during his weekly press briefing. “I do think that the passage of a rule on lobbying and ethics reform will help us.”

Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield said yesterday that he expects Republican members of that committee to support the budget bill, but at least one member of the leadership had concerns about their support as of yesterday morning.

Asked if the emergency-spending provision is still a sticking point in those negotiations, Blunt said, “I think it still is a legitimate issue, and we’re working to look at that particular part of it.”

With the appropriators apparently on board, the main issue remained centrist and vulnerable Republicans who were reluctant to support a budget that tries to trim social welfare programs.
Castle said that centrist Republicans discussed the budget during a meeting yesterday with his fellow members of the Tuesday Group but that no official tally was made about support for the bill.

Appropriators have already begun to hold hearings on their annual spending bills, so leaders do not have much time to pass a budget before these appropriations bills start coming to the floor. If they are unable to pass a budget, it would be the only time since the House passed its current budget rules in 1974 that the majority party has failed to pass a spending blueprint out of the House.

As leaders continued working on the budget yesterday, word spread that Republicans would suffer a loss on the refinery bill. Before the legislation even came to the floor, leadership staff had scheduled a press event in the House Radio and Television Gallery to decry perceived Democratic obstruction on energy legislation.

“Well, we just saw another defeat at the hands of the Democrats,” Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said in reference to Democrats who voted against the Republican-backed energy legislation.

Democrats opposed the bill because they saw it as an unnecessary break for large oil companies.

“The Republicans’ answer to consumers’ being charged high gas prices is to give Big Oil billions of tax dollars,” Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), wrote in an e-mail.

Crider also pointed out that the bill would give the defense secretary the ability to sell or transfer land to oil companies at no cost and that only one request has been filed to build a new refinery in the past 25 years.

Barton attributed that latter statistic to the slow permitting process and the high cost of building a refinery.