By Andrew Restuccia - 05/18/11 12:30 AM EDT
The Senate on Tuesday rejected a bill that would have ended $21 billion worth of tax breaks for large oil companies, but Democrats vowed to revive the measure as part of high-stakes negotiations on the budget and debt ceiling.
Democrats’ pledge to continue pushing the bill signals that they view the effort as a winning political issue amid $4-a-gallon gas, soaring oil company profits and growing concern about the deficit.
Two Republicans — Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — voted for the motion, while three Democrats — Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) -- broke ranks and voted against the motion.
The legislation would eliminate a slew of tax breaks for the five largest oil companies: Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.
Democrats say the bill would save $21 billion over the course of 10 years, savings that can be used to reduce the deficit at a time of increased belt-tightening.
“Quite simply, we are talking about making drastic cuts to programs that touch the lives of almost every person in this country. Except for them,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said, referring to the major oil companies.
“Without a willingness to stare down sacred cows like corporate subsidies, we won’t ever be able to make progress eliminating the massive federal deficit, which is staring us in the face.”
Top Democrats vowed Tuesday to revive the oil tax breaks repeal proposal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he plans to push the measure as part of negotiations on the budget and to raise the debt ceiling.
“I am confident that before we finish our budget negotiations here in anticipation of raising the debt ceiling that that will be part of it,” Reid told reporters in the Capitol.
A vote on raising the debt ceiling is expected this summer. The Treasury Department says it will no longer be able to avoid a default on its financial obligations by Aug. 2.
But Republicans and some Democrats blasted the legislation, arguing it would single out the oil industry for punitive treatment.
“We're here debating whether or not … to essentially punish a handful of companies," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Really there's no policy justification for it other than that they can afford it — they're making money. They can afford it."
Opponents of the bill dismissed the legislation as a distraction, noting that it will do nothing to lower gas prices.
“This is entertainment," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. "And it's really not funny, and it's not laughable — it's very serious."
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the Joint Economic Committee said this week that the bill will likely have no effect on fuel prices.
Senate Republicans will get a chance to vote on a bill they say will put the country on a path toward more stable fuel prices.
Senate leadership agreed to hold a test vote Wednesday on legislation introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would expand domestic oil and gas drilling.
The bill — which echoes major components of a three-bill drilling package passed by House Republicans in recent weeks — is not expected to garner enough votes for passage. But it offers Republicans the opportunity to cast Democrats as out of touch with consumers who are paying nearly $4 a gallon at the pump.
McConnell’s bill would require the Interior Department to hold lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Virginia coast, set a timeline for review of pending offshore permit applications and extend leases in the Gulf for one year, among other things.
The tax-break repeal legislation has ignited a firestorm in Washington over tax breaks and deficit reduction.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist warned Tuesday that a vote for the bill would be a violation of a pledge signed by most Republicans not to raise taxes.
“Raising taxes on oil and natural-gas producers will do little to reduce the deficit — perhaps nothing — and only encourage Washington’s overspending problem,” Norquist said in a letter to senators. “It is for these reasons that I urge you to oppose [the bill], as it is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”
Meanwhile, fiscal watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense says the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“Congress needs to go further," Taxpayers for Common Sense Vice President Steve Ellis said. "We cannot afford to just look at a few subsidies for a handful of companies. We need to eliminate all of these subsidies as part of an effort to deal with our nation’s fiscal crisis.”
Ben Geman, Josiah Ryan and Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this story.