Dems push tough oil vote on GOP

Democrats are trying to force Republicans into a series of uncomfortable votes on repealing billions of dollars in oil industry tax breaks.

With gas prices nearing $4 a gallon, Democrats want to exploit what they see as a small crack in Republican ranks on the issue of oil industry subsidies.

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Last week, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested he is open to eliminating some oil industry tax breaks. But his office quickly walked back the comments. And House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he supports repealing the subsidies, signaling a split among top Republicans on the issue.

Though the measures to repeal the tax breaks stand little chance of passage in the House, the votes would put Republicans “in a bind” as the public shows “increasing anger” about oil and gas prices and oil industry profits, a House Democratic aide said.

“I think there are already clear divisions within the House Republican caucus on how damaging it would be to vote to keep tax subsidies for an industry where the top five companies made more than $30 billion in the first three months of the year,” the aide said.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) rejected the idea that opposition to eliminating oil tax breaks could hurt Republicans politically.

“What needs to be addressed is we need to deal with our American energy consumption, and I think the public is going to demand that,” he said.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Interior and Environment subcommittee, echoed Hastings’s statements.

Asked if a vote on the tax breaks would allow Democrats more ammunition to tie Republicans to the oil industry, Simpson said, “They’re going to say that no matter what we do. That’s just the reality. If we were in the minority and they were proposing something we didn’t like, we’d be beating the crap out of them too.”

Democrats plan to offer language to overturn the oil industry subsidies in the form of amendments to GOP-sponsored offshore drilling legislation that would require the Interior Department to conduct lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia.

They might also offer a motion to recommit the GOP drilling legislation, which is set for a vote this week, back to committee with instructions to slash the tax breaks, according to House Democrats.

“I am going to offer some amendments to try and go after the oil subsidies,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) told The Hill. “I would like to see it on a motion to recommit, but I don’t know what the motion to recommit is going to be.”

It’s unclear whether a vote on the amendments, which are due Wednesday to the Rules Committee, will be allowed. The Rules panel will meet that afternoon to hash out the rules of engagement on the legislation. McGovern, who sits on the committee, said the amendments may not be germane to the bill.

If their attempts to secure a vote on the drilling bills fail, McGovern said, Democrats will continue to look for opportunities to slash the subsidies.

“Clearly we are going to try to make an attempt to try and make amendments in order that will allow us to get at these big oil subsidies,” he said. “Republicans are cutting every program that impacts poor people. Let’s go after some of this corporate welfare that, quite frankly, is unnecessary.”

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are planning a vote on a proposal to overturn the oil industry tax breaks in the coming weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters last week that he would push for a vote as soon as possible. Reid’s spokesman said Tuesday that a vote likely won’t occur this week. In remarks to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Reid said he expects to make an announcement on the oil-subsidies issue Wednesday.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) unveiled an outline of legislation last week that would repeal tax breaks for the five largest oil companies.

The proposal faces major hurdles in the Senate, where a handful of Democrats voted against two measures to strip the subsidies in recent months.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a drill-state lawmaker who has voted against the provision in the past, said she believes the measure will fall short of the votes necessary for passage in the Senate.

“I think we’ll have a very difficult time getting anywhere close to 60 votes. He might have 50, but I don’t think he has 60,” Landrieu said. “Just to single out oil and gas companies just to score some political points is not something I’m supportive of.”

Interest groups mobilized this week on the oil tax-breaks issue.

The American Petroleum Institute, the country’s most powerful oil-and gas-lobbying group, met with lawmakers and their staff Tuesday as part of a wide-ranging effort to oppose slashing oil industry subsidies.

“Why anyone would single out individual companies for punitive treatment, I don’t understand,” API President Jack Gerard said.

Environmental groups blasted the GOP drilling bills and argued that Republicans will face pushback from the constituents if they vote against eliminating the oil subsidies.

“I think it’s going to be awfully hard for members of Congress to explain why they support subsidies when oil prices are high, there are record profits and you’ve got record deficits that are being harped upon by the same people who are calling for protecting the subsidies,” Natural Resources Defense Council Director of Government Affairs David Goldston said.

Ben Geman contributed.