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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 FeinsteinOvernight Defense: Army moves to combat sexual crimes | Eight West Point cadets expelled | Democratic senators want to restrict F-35 sale to UAE A proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US Democratic senators seek to constrain F-35 sale to UAE MORE's (D-Calif.) measure – which mirrors a bill she offered with Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Conservative group escalates earmarks war by infiltrating trainings Democrats step up hardball tactics in Supreme Court fight 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 ReidThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Biden to tap Erika Moritsugu as new Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison White House races clock to beat GOP attacks 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 ThuneSenate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Biden outreach on infrastructure met with Republican skepticism McConnell seeks to end feud with Trump MORE (R-S.D.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden nominates former NSA deputy director to serve as cyber czar | Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after all | Biden pressed on semiconductor production amid shortage Apple to send witness to Senate hearing after pushback from Klobuchar, Lee Lobbying world 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 BluntThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Greitens Senate bid creates headache for GOP MORE (Mo.), Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissLive coverage: Georgia Senate runoffs Trump, Biden face new head-to-head contest in Georgia Ex-GOP senator from Georgia suffers mild stroke: report MORE (Ga.), Daniel Coats (Ind.), Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (Miss.), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley: Iowa can't afford to be 'babysitting' unaccompanied minors Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle On The Money: Senate confirms Gensler to lead SEC | Senate GOP to face off over earmarks next week | Top Republican on House tax panel to retire MORE (Iowa), John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to Obama marine monument designation | Interior reverses course on tribal ownership of portion of Missouri river | White House climate adviser meets with oil and gas companies Senate GOP pushes back on list of participants in oil and gas leasing forum Small cities fret over feds redefining metro areas 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 KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (Ill.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranAnti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle Senate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Democrats work to pick up GOP support on anti-Asian hate crimes bill MORE (Kan.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanKellyanne Conway joins Ohio Senate candidate's campaign OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms Mallory to lead White House environment council | US emissions dropped 1.7 percent in 2019 | Interior further delays Trump rule that would make drillers pay less to feds Senate confirms Biden's pick to lead White House environmental council MORE (Ohio), Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 Lobbying world MORE (Kan.) , John Thune (S.D.), and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerMcCarthy and Biden haven't spoken since election Instagram sparks new concerns over 'kidfluencer' culture Democrats battle over best path for Puerto Rico MORE (Miss.).

The ethanol industry fared better on a second vote. Lawmakers voted 41-59 against Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Biden, lawmakers start down a road with infrastructure 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.