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Senate opponents blocked Congress from finishing its energy bill Friday, dealing a severe setback to President Bush’s proposal to redirect the nation’s energy agenda toward more production of oil, gas, coal and corn-based ethanol. Critics of the bill, both Democrats and Republicans, said it would provide too many favors to industry and hinder cleanup of water fouled by a gasoline additive. The bill includes hundreds of provisions for energy and related industries including $23.5 billion in tax breaks and a proposal to double ethanol use, an economic boon to farmers. Republican leaders fell two votes short cutting off debate blocking the bill and were forced to scramble in search of changes that might keep the measure alive. “This will not be the last vote on this bill,” promised Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “We’re going to keep voting until we pass it and get it to the president.” But after the bill breezed through the House earlier this week, it lost momentum in the Senate as a growing number of senators said it was bloated with special favors, was too expensive and threatened environmental protection. “It’s a grab bag of special interest projects and not an energy policy,” said Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, one of six Republicans, who opposed the legislation. “We’d rather start all over again, trying to get it right,” added Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, another of the GOP defectors. The bill’s proponents needed 60 senators to cut off debate and proceed to a final vote. They mustered support from 58, including 13 Democrats, as regional and philosophical interests overcame partisan ones among many of the lawmakers. While a broad, bipartisan group of senators, mostly from the Farm Belt, were attracted to the bill because it would require a doubling of corn-based ethanol, just as many had reservations because of other provisions added during more than two months of largely closed-door negotiations with House Republicans. One of the most contentious items, included in the bill at the insistence of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, would shield makers of MTBE, a gasoline additive that has been found to contaminate drinking water supplies in at least 28 states, from liability lawsuits. DeLay said he would not retreat on the issue. “The MTBE and ethanol provisions are a true compromise that will become law,” he said. The dispute over the gas additive became a rallying cry for many of the bill’s opponents on the Senate floor. “We felt obligated, many of us, to bring the bill down,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., among the strongest critics of the liability waiver. Others balked at the bill’s $31 billion price tag over 10 years. “It really doesn’t help the Senate to prolong the inevitable. The inevitable is this bill is history. It’s not going to go anyplace,” said Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic whip. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who had spearheaded negotiations with the House, said he would explore possible changes in the bill, but he added the task would be difficult and would mean some concessions from House Republicans. “We have to make sure they understand we can’t just wave a wand and pass (the bill). … They will have to work with us,” Domenici told reporters. He said the MTBE issue was a sticking point. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the bill could be salvaged with more negotiations. “I think we’re still in the ballpark,” he said in an interview, adding it was a matter of finding the right balance to attract a few more senators. But Tauzin said Bush’s help may be needed, too. “He obviously has to give his personal attention to this,” said Tauzin. The president repeatedly has called on Congress to enact a comprehensive bill this year. “We need this legislation,” Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said, promising to keep working to get a compromise. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who voted for the bill, blamed the defeat on House Republican leaders who he said undercut Domenici and other Senate negotiators by demanding items they knew many senators could not accept. Domenici said the bill was the only chance to ensure increased reliability of the nation’s electricity grids, expansion of ethanol production and tax breaks and other incentives needed to encourage renewable energy sources. The issue is over “allowing this country to get back into the business of producing energy,” said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. He said House leaders should “see very clearly that the (bill) they voted on cannot pass the Senate.” The House approved the negotiated energy package by a 246-180 vote last week. Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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