WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday blocked passage of a sweeping energy bill, dealing a blow to one of President Bush's top legislative priorities.
Supporters fell two votes short of cutting off a filibuster of the measure. That sent Republican leaders scrambling for ways to bridge the gap and calling on Bush to step up his lobbying efforts.
"This will not be the last vote on this bill," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "We're going to keep voting until we pass it, until we get it to the president's desk."
Bush, upon returning to Washington from a trip to Britain, complained that a minority of senators was obstructing a measure with broad support.
"For the sake of our national security and economic security, the Senate has got to pass this bill," he said.
The legislation stalled over objections to its cost -- an estimated $25.7 billion over 10 years in tax breaks, plus billions more for an assortment of spending programs -- and its effect on the environment. Six Republicans joined 32 Democrats and an independent in opposing a floor vote.
Particularly controversial is a provision that has nothing to do with energy production, but instead would shield manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE from product-defect lawsuits.
To attract two more votes, the bill's supporters were looking at removing the MTBE provision. But that could cause problems in the House, where Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has championed the legal shield. Texas is a major producer of MTBE.
In a statement, DeLay said opponents were unfairly using the MTBE issue to hold the sweeping measure hostage.
"Americans who are expecting solutions to energy challenges would be rightfully disappointed to see that the same politicians who rushed to the lights of the television cameras during the blackouts are now the ones seeking to pull the plug on our energy security," he said.
The bill's supporters also were looking to convert senators whose states stood to gain from the bill. In this category were Democrats Robert C. Byrd and John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, a state whose coal mine operators would benefit from provisions encouraging the use of coal. The Hawaii Democrats, Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye, were also thought to be candidates.
The bill represents a patchwork of regional and economic interests more than an overarching approach to national energy policy.
In addition to legislators from MTBE-producing states, Farm Belt lawmakers, for example, have rallied around the legislation because it would double the amount of corn-based ethanol that would have to be added to gasoline.
Opponents are diverse, from environmentalists against relaxed regulation for energy production industries to trial lawyers and communities seeking damages for MTBE contamination.
The bill, which was approved by the House Tuesday, would provide $25.7 billion in tax breaks to encourage energy production and conservation. It also would include a loan guarantee to spur construction of an Alaska-to-the-Midwest natural gas pipeline, mandate tough rules for the nation's electrical grid and provide incentives for modernizing the transmission system.
The bill has in it a number of recommendations from the 2001 White House energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, including authorizing $1.8 billion for anti-pollution technology on coal-fired plants and $2 billion for development of a hydrogen-powered car.
The measure also promotes some environmentally friendly projects, from a program to encourage bicycle commuting to tax incentives to spur production of more energy-efficient clothes washers and refrigerators; it also would authorize states to open up carpool lanes to solo drivers in hybrid cars.
Although a supporter of increased energy production, Republican Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire said he voted against putting the bill to a floor vote because of its cost and the MTBE legal protections. "At a certain point, we have to draw the line," he said. "It would be better to start all over again and get it right for the American taxpayer than to pass a bill that distorts markets, distorts investment and tries to micromanage our economy."
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were among the Democrats voting to block the bill. The vote was 57 to 40, but Frist voted against cutting off debate only as a procedural move to keep the bill alive. Thirteen Democrats joined 44 Republicans in moving to vote on the bill.
"The auction still goes on," complained Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who does not support the bill and voted against cutting off debate. He added that he was confident the legislation's supporters would not be able "to purchase additional votes to get to 60. But we will keep fighting and make sure that we inform the American people of the provisions of this bill, some of which even we haven't been able to uncover yet."