Springfield State Journal Register

November 22, 2003

Energy bill vote blocked


WASHINGTON - Supporters of a massive federal energy bill, which contains an ethanol mandate long sought by Illinois farmers, were handed a setback Friday when they failed to get enough votes to block a Senate filibuster.

Two votes short, proponents vowed to try again next week to pass the far-reaching energy bill that they say would expand farmers' markets by increasing the use of corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

Illinois Farm Bureau president Ron Warfield called the Senate's failure to move forward on the bill Friday "a tremendous setback for Illinois farmers, the renewable-fuels industry and our nation's energy security."

"Obviously, we're very, very disappointed and concerned and upset," Warfield said. "But we're not going to give up hope, and we're going to keep on fighting."

The bill nearly would double the use of ethanol, requiring refiners to use 5 billion gallons per year by 2012. Production levels this year are expected to reach 2.7 billion gallons. Illinois produces more ethanol than any other state, with five ethanol plants in operation and others under construction.

Sen. Dick Durbin played a leading role in the effort to block the vote.

While the Springfield Democrat supports the ethanol provisions, he said he couldn't accept language that would give liability protection to producers of MTBE, a fuel additive found to contaminate groundwater. He said the provision would limit the ability of communities in Illinois and elsewhere to seek damages and would force taxpayers to pick up the clean-up costs.

On the Senate floor, he called it a "bargain with the devil."

Durbin and others also opposed the bill's high price tag of $31 billion over 10 years, which he said "was a gusher of giveaways to special interests."

Warfield noted that Durbin was the only senator from the top five ethanol-producing states to oppose a final vote on the bill.

"That says an awful lot," Warfield said. "We have conveyed our hope that he would lead a united Illinois delegation that would support the energy bill."

Durbin sympathized with the farmers.

"I know they're disappointed that we didn't get ethanol and biodiesel, but tomorrow is another day and I think we can," he said.

Senate action was blocked by a procedural vote. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, clearing the way for a majority vote on final passage. On Friday, 58 senators from both parties voted to end the debate. The official vote was 57-40 because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., changed his vote to allow him to bring the bill up again in the future under Senate rules.

Even as the vote was taking place, Durbin said he overheard offers being made to certain senators for projects for their state if they would switch sides.

"The bargain window is open for business," he said.

Durbin said he hopes the MTBE provision will be removed, adding, "There's always a way, if there's the will."

Six Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill. Thirteen Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, joined Republicans to support it.

Dwain Ford, chairman of the American Soybean Association and a farmer from Kinmundy, Ill., said he hopes some opponents can be persuaded to switch their votes over the weekend.

The bill would increase the price of corn by 28 cents a bushel and the price of the soybeans by 17 cents a bushel, according to a study commission by the Illinois Farm Bureau.

"We're hoping some senators will see the opportunities and positive things available in the bill and see what this means not only for U.S. agriculture, but for the economy throughout the United States," Ford said.

However, environmentalists and consumer groups said they hoped Friday's vote would kill the bill.

"On top of the billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks for energy companies, the real cost of this bill would be increased air pollution, oil spills, water pollution and continued delay of any real U.S. action to curb its impact on climate change," said Environmental Defense legislative counsel John Bowman.

The consumer group Illinois PIRG also opposes the bill, which it contends would delay measures to reduce air pollution, provide incentives to polluting industries and do little to ensure the reliability of the nation's electricity grid.