Senators vote down expanded drilling measure as transportation debate begins

E&E  • Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012

The Senate rejected a measure from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) today that would have expanded offshore drilling as they moved through the first day of a slog of 30 amendment votes to their transportation reauthorization bill.

The Senate cleared eight of its 12 nongermane amendments, many of which dealt with contentious energy issues that have been repeated talking points throughout this Congress. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the chamber would resume work Tuesday on those amendments, as well as 18 germane amendments. A final vote on the transportation spending package is tentatively expected next week.

The Vitter legislation, which died on a 46-52 vote, was similar in scope to a package of energy bills that passed the House last month. But the Vitter amendment did not include language to share revenue with coastal states, an omission that lost the support of at least one moderate Democrat. The Louisiana Republican’s amendment would have resurrected a scrapped George W. Bush plan that called for development in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and other off-limits areas.

The amendment drew support from Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jim Webb of Virginia. It was opposed by Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine. It would have needed 60 votes to pass.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who with Webb has introduced a separate offshore drilling bill, was among the senators voting against Vitter’s measure.

“Unlike the Warner-Webb offshore legislation, Vitter made no provision for Virginia to benefit from revenue-sharing,” said Beth Adelson, a spokeswoman for Warner.

Vitter earlier today said reinstating the Bush plan, which was introduced in draft form in 2008 and tossed by the Obama administration, would open up significantly more domestic resources for drilling.

“One thing that all of us, Democrats and Republicans, can agree on is the urgent need to increase our supply of domestic energy,” he said. “That is the single biggest step we can take right now to try to rein in spiraling gas prices.”

But Democrats said the move was unnecessary, with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) calling the bill “anti-jobs” because it would disrupt tourism, fishing and other coastal industries.

The Senate also voted down a measure that would have rolled back U.S. EPA clean air rules (see related story), approved language regarding rural schools (see related story) and held two votes rejecting measures about the Keystone XL pipeline (see related story).

The Senate also rejected a bill from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would have directed the Office of Management and Budget to eliminate programs identified in a recent Government Accountability Office report that highlights the government’s duplicative programs. That report identified dozens of programs that could be consolidated, including 14 grant and loan programs designed to curb vehicles’ diesel emissions at EPA and the departments of Energy and Transportation.

Coburn passed legislation with similar language last spring. Today’s vote — which failed on a 52-46 vote, falling short of the 60-vote threshold it needed — would have required $10 billion in savings, up from $5 billion in a previous version.

Today’s votes will clear the way for the Senate to move a two-year, $109 billion bill reauthorizing the nation’s highways and transit systems. The bill has been held up for weeks because of wrangling about nongermane amendments.

Before the vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) lamented the amount of time that had been spent reaching an agreement on the bill, which Democrats see as a job-creation tool and a way to jump-start the economy.

“Not everything around here should be a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Reid said. The bill is “not dealing with tens of jobs or hundreds of jobs or thousands of jobs. It’s millions of jobs. What a shame it has taken so long to get to the Senate floor.”