Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Members of Congress are desperate to pass anything something on energy this week before August recess begins on Friday and they head home to face voters restive over gas prices. But Democrats and Republicans are so bitterly divided over what to do that prospects for progress look uncertain at best.

Democrats in both branches of Congress are hoping to pass bills to curb speculation in the oil-futures market and release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — measures that have thus far been blocked by Republicans. Over the weekend, Republicans in the Senate also blocked a measure Democrats put forward that would have provided $5.1 billion to help low-income Americans pay utility bills this year.

Republicans aren’t necessarily opposed to all of these proposals, but they’re adamant that energy legislation must open more territory to oil drilling. Senate Republicans are holding up energy bills while they push to attach provisions that would overturn bans on offshore oil drilling and oil-shale development in Western states. House Republicans have united behind a drilling-heavy bill and pledged to stay in session until they get a vote on it. (It will be interesting to see if they stick to this come Saturday.)

With the clock running out, Democrats are planning to put forward their bills again, and Republicans are likely to hold fast on their call for more drilling — but a compromise could be possible. In the Senate on Monday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered Republicans the opportunity to offer four amendments to the speculation legislation, including ones on offshore drilling and oil shale. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Reid’s move “significant,” but he has in the past pledged that his caucus won’t pass anything that doesn’t include more drilling. Even if the GOP leadership does put forward its drilling amendments and all 49 Senate Republicans back them, they would still need to pick up 11 Democrats to move them forward. Some may be willing to approve pro-drilling provisions, but most Dems are likely to vote against.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-Nev.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told a group of reporters over breakfast Monday that he is “not confident that anything can be passed in the Senate before the August recess.”

The “biggest opportunity” to pass energy legislation, Bingaman said, is the tax-credit extensions for renewable energy that have stalled repeatedly in the Senate, despite passing in the House on multiple occasions. GOP senators haven’t liked the Democrats’ proposals to pay for the tax credits by closing what Democrats consider to be tax loopholes for business, but moderate Democrats have insisted that so-called “pay-fors” are necessary to prevent the bill from adding to the budget deficit.

A new compromise version of the bill, proposed by Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.), would pay for the extension of tax credits by setting limits on the ability of hedge-fund managers to defer taxes on their income held offshore and by putting off until 2019 a tax credit for multinational corporations. Baucus also added a number of unrelated provisions meant to make the bill more attractive to Republicans. It’s unclear how many Republicans might be willing to back Baucus’ proposal.

Renewable-energy companies have been howling that failure to extend the tax credits is crippling them.

Said Bingaman, “I hope very much that we give priority to passing tax provisions. If we’re blocked from being able to vote on this tax package this week, it will be a loss for this country.”

And it may mean that senators and reps go home empty-handed to constituents angry over the energy situation.