By Pete Kasperowicz and Ben Geman - 09/14/12 04:23 PM EDT
The House passed legislation Friday afternoon that would curtail a Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program that backed a $535 million federal loan to Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-panel maker.
Members approved the No More Solyndras Act, H.R. 6213, in a 245-161 vote. Republicans have held the failed green-energy company as proof that the Obama administration has funneled billions of dollars to undeserving firms.
Passage sends the bill to a Senate that is expected to ignore it completely.
While the two parties have had heated debate over the Solyndra failure for the last year, 22 Democrats broke ranks and voted for the bill, along with all but four Republicans.
Republicans have said all year that these sorts of controls are needed after the Solyndra loan guarantee, which they said demonstrated that DOE's process for vetting applications is deeply flawed. The 2009 Solyndra guarantee led to a decision by the Treasury Department's Federal Financing Bank to loan Solyndra $535 million. The company struggled and went bankrupt in 2011.
"It is amazing to me that the administration gave a half-billion dollar loan guarantee to a company that its own experts predicted would fail," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said during Friday's debate. He described Solyndra as a company "so dysfunctional that it burned through this giant handout and went bankrupt in two years."
Republicans also jumped on the Obama administration's decision to restructure the loan in 2011 in an attempt to help save Solyndra. That restructuring involved the addition of more private investment in the company, but also a decision by the government to give those investors priority status for recouping their investment — ahead of U.S. taxpayers — in the event that the company failed.
The GOP slammed this "subordination" of U.S. taxpayers on the floor Friday, saying it was not legal to put taxpayers at the back of the line.
"When the warnings came down to fruition and Solyndra was out of cash in the autumn of 2010, the Obama administration doubled down on its bad debt, restructuring Solyndra's loan in early 2011 and putting wealthy investors at the front of the line of taxpayers, which was a clear violation of the Energy Policy Act," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), who leads the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.
The Obama administration has argued that it needs to retain the ability to subordinate taxpayers as a last-ditch tool for rescuing highly distressed loan recipients. David Frantz, the acting head of the loan programs office at DOE, told a House hearing in July that removing this tool would hurt the program.
"You would be hamstringing us and taking a very critical tool that could, in fact, save taxpayers' money," Frantz said at the time.
Democrats did not try to deny the outcome of the Solyndra loan during Friday's debate on the bill. However, they did reject the deeper Republican complaint that the Solyndra loan was only able to happen at all because of political connections between the company and the Obama administration.
The Republican belief that politics played a heavy role in the loan guarantee is reflected in the bill. The legislation says an investigation done by Upton's committee shows the loan was "driven by politics and ideology and divorced from economic reality where the Department of Energy ignored concerns about the company's financial condition and market for its products."
But Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the ranking member of Stearns's subcommittee, rejected this claim. She said it is not supported by the investigation.
"The facts simply do not support the over-the-top allegations that there was anything wrong with this decision," she said.
"What the evidence showed is that the career officials — and the Bush and Obama administration appointees who worked on the loan — told our investigators (is) that political considerations played no role in the decisions on Solyndra," she said. "They told us that there was no improper pressure to rush key decisions on the loan, to approve the loan, or to change the terms of the loan."
DeGette offered an amendment that would rewrite some of language saying the Solyndra loan guarantee was politically driven.
Instead, it would insert new language saying the loan "was based on the best professional judgment of career Department of Energy and Office of Management and Budget officials, without political or ideological interference from Obama administration political appointees or career officials."
The House rejected that amendment in a party-line 169-238 vote.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) proposed another amendment that would allow DOE loan guarantee applications filed in 2012 to be approved as usual. But the House rejected that as well, in a 170-231 vote.
While Solyndra has received the most attention, Republicans have also noted the recent bankruptcy of Abound Solar and financial troubles that other DOE-backed companies are facing. The GOP says these troubles represent the failure of the Obama administration's green-energy agenda.
But administration officials have pushed back against the attacks, arguing they obscure the successes of the loan guarantee program. The program was first authorized in a bipartisan 2005 energy law and expanded through the 2009 stimulus bill, which was ultimately used to back Solyndra and other companies.
The overall program is authorized to support technologies including renewables, nuclear power, transmission and low-emissions fossil energy such as carbon control technologies projects for coal-fired power.
Other projects approved or conditionally approved include a preliminary commitment for an $8.3 billion guarantee to help utility giant Southern Co. build a pair of nuclear reactors in Georgia.