With today’s green energy boom (and over 100,000 existing jobs in the wind and solar industries alone) hanging in the balance, the Senate voted this morning by an overwhelming 88 to 8 margin to attach short-term extensions of key clean energy tax incentives set to expire at the end of this year — the Production Tax Credit that mostly goes to wind power, the Investment Tax Credit for solar, and other incentives for energy efficient appliances and the like — to the housing bill that the Senate then went on to pass by an also overwhelming 84 to 12. (None of the presidential contenders were around for today’s votes, for those keeping track of such things.)
(The overwhelming popularity of wind power was also clearly on display this morning. An effort by wind-hatin’ Sen. Lamar Alexander [R-Tenn.] to double the extension to two years by cutting the subsidy to wind in half was trounced on a 15-79 vote — fewer votes than similar efforts by Alexander have received in the past.)
Today’s victory — the first time this Congress that the Senate has approved even short-term extensions of these clean energy incentives — is sweet, to be sure, as it underscores the strong, bipartisan support for these measures and the urgent need to extend them. However, unless the House and the Senate can bridge some key differences, this particular strategy may not ultimately result in victory on this make-or-break issue.
As faithful Gristmill readers know, extending these incentives has been a major priority for enviros, renewable energy folks, big box retailers, appliance manufacturers, and others for over a year now. The Senate first voted on a renewables tax package last July. (It lost by two votes.)
Will you pay or will you go?
While the House of Representatives has passed expansive, multi-year extensions several times over the past few months, these efforts have fallen short by one or two votes in the Senate on three previous occasions. Under the Democrats’ strict “pay-go” rules — rules requiring new spending to be offset by a cut somewhere else — the green for green energy came from repealing approximately $13 billion in unnecessary tax breaks and other giveaways to Big Oil. Despite skyrocketing profits at Big Oil, Senate Republicans apparently felt that $13 billion out of the $519 billion — yes, that’s a half-trillion dollars — that the five biggest oil companies have raked in in profits between 2001 and 2007 and was just too much to ask and filibustered such measures.
In early February, Senators made an effort to sidestep the pay-for issue by trying to attach a package almost identical to the one passed today to the original economic stimulus package. This effort, however, also fell short by one vote.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a major champion on energy and environmental issues, remains committed to finding a way to get these incentives finalized. The House, after all, passed a $17 billion package of clean energy incentives by a comfortable 236-182 margin just over a month ago. As with previous House packages, however, the funding for this package came out of Big Oil’s hide and faced dim prospects in the Senate.
After Sen. Cantwell (D-Wash.), who has been the driving force on this issue in the Senate, teamed up with Sen. Ensign (R-Nev.) to put together the bipartisan coalition needed to achieve today’s successful (but not paid for) result, Speaker Pelosi reiterated via email ($ub. req’d) that “[House Democrats] are committed to pay as you go in our effort to restore our nation’s fiscal responsibility and strongly support the House-passed legislation.”
An additional hurdle is a fundamental disagreement between the Senate and the House about the shape of any housing-related aid package. The House appears to prefer a package more focused on the needs homeowners rather than the broader housing industry as a whole. Expect that debate to develop further over the coming days.
Given the urgent need for action and Pelosi’s proven commitment and ability to get it done when it comes to green issues, I am confident that folks from both Chambers will continue working hard to find a way to navigate these thorny issues.
Those efforts may get a boost in the coming days as Sen. Baucus (D-Mont.), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, unveils a broad package of “extenders.” This package, covering some three dozen expired or expiring tax provisions, would come with a $50 billion price tag. But it would be 100 percent paid for, thus posing no problem for House Democrats eager to maintain budgetary discipline. As the offsets themselves and the scope of the package have yet to be unveiled, it remains unclear whether and/or how vocally Senate Republicans might object.
In short, today’s vote won’t be the last word in the Senate or otherwise when it comes to this issue, but it does illuminate at least one additional path forward and keeps the issue on the front burner.
In any case, the coalition of very strange bedfellows indeed — the Sierra Club and NRDC lobbying alongside Wal-Mart and the National Association of Home Builders, to cite but one example — will continue its full-court press on members from both sides of the aisle in both chambers until a bill is on the president’s desk.