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Senate delays vote on energy bill

Farm groups are asking Senate leaders to step up their efforts to pass a slimmed down version of the energy bill amid reports the latter have decided to delay a vote on the measure until late March.

The groups, which include the National Corn Growers Association and Farm Bureau, urged Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle to “seize every legislative opportunity to enact into law the Renewable Fuels Standard and renewable energy tax provisions in the proposed law.”

Washington observers say Frist, R-Tenn., and Daschle, D-S.D., decided to delay consideration of the law, possibly until late March, because of a failure to persuade Democrat senators to limit the number of amendments that may be offered to the bill.

Although the bill's spending on ethanol-production incentives and other features has been reduced from an estimated $31 billion to $14 billion and its waiver of liability on MTBE dropped, Democrats reportedly want to change other features of the legislation.

Other pieces of legislation, such as a medical malpractice lawsuit reform measure backed by Frist, also appear to be getting in the way.

NCGA officials, who have been fighting for passage of a Renewable Fuels Standard and other tax incentives for ethanol production for more than three years, said the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support because it addresses the need for more sustainable energy production.

The farm group letter cites rising gasoline prices, falling natural gas supplies, lagging employment and dependence on foreign energy sources as reasons for immediate enactment of RFS.

The group responsible for the letter, called the Coalition for a Renewable Fuels Standard, argues that the energy bill will address these concerns by stimulating investment in domestic renewable energy technologies.

“This legislation just makes good sense,” said NCGA President Dee Vaughan, a farmer from Dumas, Texas. “Aside from bolstering our domestic energy security, RFS would create new jobs, increase opportunities for corn growers and help to protect our environment. It's obvious that the American public is behind this legislation; now we just need our lawmakers to close the deal.”

According to the letter, RFS enactment would reduce crude oil imports by 1.6 billion barrels and shrink the U.S. trade deficit by $34.1 billion through 2012.

Passage of the legislation would also generate more than $5.3 billion in rural economic development and increase farm income by $55.2 billion.

And contrary to recent reports in popular media, an increased supply of domestically produced fuel would likely reduce consumer gasoline costs by 6.6 cents per gallon.

The coalition also points out employment benefits that are likely to result from RFS enactment.

RFS alone is expected to account for more than 214,000 new jobs, while the comprehensive energy legislation package is estimated to produce nearly 1 million new jobs.

“Such an employment increase is needed, particularly across rural America where small towns and family farms need the economic stimulus,” the letter says.

Due to reports that floor action on the energy bill may be delayed until late March, Vaughan re-emphasized the need for prompt action on important renewable fuels legislation.

“We're getting closer,” said Vaughan. “But we still have some significant obstacles to clear. This has been a long process, and we're hopeful our elected officials will step up to the plate and do what's best for U.S. employment, the economy and the environment.”

Other groups signing the letter were: Renewable Fuels Association; American Coalition for Ethanol; American Farm Bureau Federation; National Farmers Union; National Biodiesel Board; American Soybean Association; National Grain Sorghum Producers; New Uses Council; American Corn Growers Association; Women Involved in Farm Economics; Clean Fuels Development Coalition; and Ethanol Producers and Consumers.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., introduced the new, leaner energy policy bill two weeks ago after Frist and Daschle agreed to allow the bill to be considered swiftly and with as few amendments as possible.

The energy bill has been stalled in the Senate since early December for lack of enough votes (60) to bring cloture to a sometimes raucous debate on its provisions.

Following its introduction, Frist and Daschle submitted a colloquy into the Congressional Record that outlines agreement, which was reached in a meeting on Feb. 12.

“I worked closely with leadership to make sure this energy bill addresses our energy challenges, achieves the same goals the old bill did and creates as many new jobs,” said Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It does.

“We cut costly provisions, we didn't cut jobs,” he added. “I was particularly concerned about protecting the new jobs created in the near-term. We've done that. The tax incentives for renewable energy, coupled with the ethanol, clean coal and natural gas provisions create every single job the old energy bill would have created. They create them as swiftly as the old bill would have done.”

The estimated cost of the new Domenici bill, S-2095, is less than $14 billion, taking into account a $1.245 billion savings in the authorizing portion of the package. The new bill costs less than half of the estimated $31 billion cost of the old bill that passed the House in November.

The leaner energy bill includes the tax package passed by the Senate Finance Committee last May. The estimated cost of the tax package is reduced to below $15 billion by delaying the implementation of most provisions until later this year.

“We shaved off half the cost and still pump more than 800,000 new jobs into our economy,” said the New Mexico Republican. “The ethanol provision alone will do more to bring new life to rural America than anything that has passed through Congress in the last two decades.”

The bill was introduced under Rule 14, which meant it will be immediately placed on the Senate calendar where it can be brought to the Senate floor for consideration at any time without the need to go through the committee process. But it now appears Senate Democrats have balked at the amendment-limiting agreement.

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