Democrats’ ‘Big Oil’ bill gets surprise support from Republicans in Senate vote

Tue, Mar 27, 2012 (2 a.m.)

Senate Democrats’ call for a vote on the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies bill (yes, that’s its actual name) Monday was intended to resonate on the campaign trail — to show voters they’re fighting Republicans on what’s shaping up as a key issue this campaign season.

But then, in a surprise move, Republicans voted to clear the usually insurmountable filibuster hurdle, leading to a 92-4 Senate vote to take up the Democrats’ big-oil bill.

That doesn’t mean Republican senators will vote to pass the legislation in a few days — something Democrats are sure to seize on when the time comes. But Democrats won’t be able to accuse Republicans of being obstructionists.

Sen. Harry Reid has complained that the Republican Senate caucus uses its power to filibuster issues they don’t agree with to excess. Forty-seven Republicans can block a bill, while 60 of the 100 senators must vote yea to get it through. But 47 Republicans can’t block much when a simple majority is all it takes to clear legislation.

As the partisan divide has widened, use of the filibuster increased to record levels in the last Congress. But while Monday evening’s vote was a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, few were celebrating.

“The Senate will vote this evening to advance the Repeal Big Oil Subsidies Act,” Reid said before the vote, when it was clear Republicans planned to vote to take up the bill.

But instead of celebrating the Republicans’ cooperation, he cited polls showing 80 percent of Americans also wanted to repeal oil and gas subsidies — the Democrats’ position.

“By an overwhelming margin, they agree with us,” Reid said.

Sen. Dean Heller also seemed unimpressed with the bipartisanship.

Click to enlarge photo

Sen. Dean Heller, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley applaud during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City Monday, May 30, 2011.

“Once again, Washington is doing its old familiar dance — pushing another measure that’s big on talking points but light on solutions,” Heller said in a statement shortly after supporting the procedural motion to take up the bill he doesn’t sound keen on voting for. “The truth is this measure will not help anyone struggling with rising gas prices.”

Heller has been protective of the current tax code, which provides breaks to oil and gas companies. And he has taken fire for that position from his main opponent for the Senate this year, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Berkley and Reid are among the Democrats calling on Congress to repeal oil and gas tax breaks and put them toward developing other forms of energy. Berkley filed a bill earlier this month to swap oil and gas tax credits for renewable energy credits.

Heller argues his position is not about protecting oil and gas companies; it’s about taxes. He’s open to talking about closing loopholes in the context of a larger tax discussion but not to raising taxes on anyone — including oil and gas companies — before then.

Heller said Monday that he will unveil this week a plan “to help provide relief at the pump” while developing the country’s energy resources.

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