Senate kills off ethanol tax credits in possible break with tax pledge

The Senate voted 73-27 Thursday to kill a major tax break that benefits the ethanol industry, handing a political win to a bipartisan group of lawmakers that call the incentive needless and expensive.



The vote also could have ramifications on future votes to reduce the deficit. Much of the GOP conference supported Feinstein's bill even though it does not include another tax break to offset the elimination of the ethanol tax credit. 

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As such, the vote could also represent a setback for influential conservative Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), who said a vote for the plan would violate the anti-tax pledge most Republicans have signed unless paired with a separate tax-cutting amendment.

Thirty-three Republicans and 38 Democrats supported the measure along with both of the chamber's Independents, who caucus with Democrats. 

Fourteen Republicans and 13 Democrats voted against it.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinThis week: Democrats, White House set for infrastructure, budget talks Senate confirms Rosen for No. 2 spot at DOJ Senate confirms controversial 9th Circuit pick without blue slips MORE's (D-Calif.) measure – which mirrors a bill she offered with Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Worries grow about political violence as midterms approach President Trump’s war on federal waste American patients face too many hurdles in regard to health-care access MORE (R-Okla.) – was approved despite opposition from Corn Belt lawmakers who are seeing political support for ethanol wane.



Coburn said the vote sends "a good signal" to ongoing talks to raise the nation's debt ceiling while reducing deficits. He also said he was sure it would be on the table in the deficit-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden. 

Feinstein's amendment to an economic development bill would quickly end the credit of 45 cents for each gallon of ethanol that fuel blenders mix into gasoline.
The credit led to $5.4 billion in foregone revenue last year, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The amendment also ends the 54-cent per gallon import tariff that protects the domestic ethanol industry.



Thursday’s vote was a turnaround from Tuesday, when just 40 senators voted for Coburn’s identical amendment, well shy of the 60 needed to advance it.

But the politics of Tuesday’s battle were clouded by Democratic anger at Coburn’s surprise procedural move last week that set up the vote. Democratic leaders had whipped against the amendment heading into Tuesday’s vote, but two aides said they did not do so ahead of the vote Thursday.

The vote is also tied up in a battle among conservatives about whether Republicans who voted with Feinstein and Coburn had abandoned ATR’s anti-tax pledge that most Republicans have signed. Thirty-four Republicans voted in favor of Coburn's amendment on Tuesday, which signaled many Republicans saw the ethanol tax credit as wasteful and were willing to kill it.

The Club for Growth lobbied in favor of the measure and said senators who voted for it deserved credit for ridding the tax code of "market-distorting tax credits and subsidies."

Norquist had said voting for Coburn would not be a violation of the tax pledge if the amendment paired with Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) amendment that would repeal the estate tax and end the national renewable fuels mandate. But a vote on DeMint's amendment has not been scheduled. 

"As long as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge signers that voted for the Feinstein/Coburn amendment also vote for the DeMint amendment, they will be in keeping wit the pledge they made to their constituents," ATR said in a statement. "Taken together, this elimination of favoritism toward ethanol is not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge."

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidLobbying World Mitch McConnell is not invincible Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary MORE (D-Nev.), on the Senate floor Wednesday night, said the agreement to have a vote on the Feinstein plan “does not preclude the Senate from considering his amendment.”

DeMint, an ally of Norquist, pledged Thursday to use every tool possible to secure a vote on his amendment. 

The politics of ethanol are more regional than partisan, and ethanol backers are floating plans aimed at thwarting efforts to kill the incentives outright. 

Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Senate Commerce chair to renew push for regs on self-driving vehicles Hillicon Valley: Facebook co-founder calls for breaking up company | Facebook pushes back | Experts study 2020 candidates to offset 'deepfake' threat | FCC votes to block China Mobile | Groups, lawmakers accuse Amazon of violating children's privacy MORE (R-S.D.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharFox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Overnight Energy: Warren wants Dems to hold climate-focused debate | Klobuchar joins candidates rejecting fossil fuel money | 2020 contender Bennet offers climate plan O'Rourke says he would 'absolutely' do Fox News town hall MORE (D-Minn.) – joined by other ethanol allies – are floating legislation that would end the 45-cent per gallon ethanol blender’s credit (which along with the import tariff is slated to expire at year’s end), but maintain a smaller and “variable” blender’s credit for three years when oil prices are below certain levels.



It would steer some savings from ending the credit to deficit reduction while also extending credits for cellulosic ethanol production, small ethanol producers, and installing alternative fuel pumps.

Despite the vote, Feinstein is still seeking to negotiate with industry supporters. Feinstein said that she and Coburn are meeting with Thune and Klobuchar, noting they are "trying to see if there is a compromise in this thing that does what we need to do vis-a-vis deficit reduction and in some way eases it a bit."

Coburn said Reid had offered ethanol supporters a vehicle to try and move a plan that would seek to boost ethanol infrastructure and cellulosic ethanol, a next-wave fuel.

While the White House supports including tax increases as part of a plan to reduce the budget deficit, it supported the ethanol tax credits. 

It issued a statement this week against killing the blender’s credit outright while acknowledging that reforms are needed. 

“With respect to incentives, the administration is open to new approaches that meet today’s challenges and save taxpayers money. We oppose a straight repeal of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said this week.

The 14 Republican senators voting against Feinstein's amendment were Sens. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Top Republican says Senate unlikely to vote on any election security bills San Francisco becomes first city to ban facial recognition technology MORE (Mo.), Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissRepublicans say Democrats holding up disaster relief as 'Sandy payback' Ex-House Intel chair: Intel panel is wrong forum to investigate Trump's finances The Hill's Morning Report - Trump budget reignites border security fight MORE (Ga.), Daniel Coats (Ind.), Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranTop 5 races to watch in 2019 Bottom Line Races Dems narrowly lost show party needs to return to Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy MORE (Miss.), Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Judge upholds House subpoena for Trump financial records | Trump vows to appeal ruling by 'Obama-appointed judge' | Canada, Mexico lift retaliatory tariffs on US | IRS audit rate falls Canada, Mexico lift tariffs on US goods after Trump scraps steel, aluminum levies Overnight Defense: Trump rails against media coverage | Calls reporting on Iran tensions 'highly inaccurate' | GOP senator blocking Trump pick for Turkey ambassador | Defense bill markup next week MORE (Iowa), John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenSenators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data Overnight Energy: Bipartisan Senate group seeks more funding for carbon capture technology | Dems want documents on Interior pick's lobbying work | Officials push to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US Officials, automakers aim to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US: report MORE (N.D.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE (Neb.), Mark KirkMark Steven KirkEx-GOP Sen. Kirk registers to lobby The global reality behind 'local' problems Dems vow swift action on gun reform next year MORE (Ill.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOn The Money: Judge upholds House subpoena for Trump financial records | Trump vows to appeal ruling by 'Obama-appointed judge' | Canada, Mexico lift retaliatory tariffs on US | IRS audit rate falls GOP senator calls for resolution of trade dispute: 'Farmers and ranchers are hurting' Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran MORE (Kan.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWANTED: A Republican with courage Companies warn Trump trade war is about to hit consumers Lawmakers grapple with the future of America's workforce MORE (Ohio), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Tough questions await Trump immigration plan Pat Robertson: Alabama 'has gone too far' with 'extreme' abortion law Pat Robertson on if Equality Act passes: The land will 'vomit you out' MORE (Kan.) , John Thune (S.D.), and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerSenate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law Hillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Senate Commerce chair to renew push for regs on self-driving vehicles MORE (Miss.).

The ethanol industry fared better on a second vote. Lawmakers voted 41-59 against Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPelosi receives John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Romney: Trump 'has distanced himself from some of the best qualities of the human character' MSNBC host: Barr 'the most dangerous person' who works for Trump MORE’s (R-Ariz.) amendment to prohibit use of federal funds to build ethanol blender pumps or storage facilities.

This story was last updated at 4:11 p.m.