House boost refinery construction in marathon vote; Democrats cry "shame, shame"
WASHINGTON – The House voted to encourage U.S. oil companies to build new refineries Friday in a raucous roll call that Republican leaders extended 40 minutes while they buttonholed their own members to avoid an embarrassing defeat.Democrats crying “shame, shame” – and some GOP moderates – called the bill a sop to rich oil companies that would do nothing to ease energy costs including expected soaring heating bills this winter.The bill would streamline government permits for refineries, open federal lands including closed military bases for future refinery construction and limit the number of gasoline blends refiners have to produce, eliminating many blends now designed to reduce air pollution.The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, passed 212-210, but not before a standoff on the House floor. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked at one point, “Is this the House of a Banana Republic.”It looked as if the bill was going down to defeat, two votes shy of approval. Democrats to no avail called for gaveling the vote closed as GOP leaders lobbied their own members to switch votes and support the bill.”He worked me over a little,” said Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., among the last group of lawmakers to switch to support the legislation, referring to his discussions with House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.Rep. Tom DeLay, who recently stepped down temporarily as majority leader after being indicted in Texas over a campaign finance issue, was as active as ever, administering pressure on wavering lawmakers in the crowded, noisy House chamber.Finally, long after the vote had been scheduled to close, two GOP votes switched, providing the Republican victory. A tie would have killed the bill. “Shame, shame, shame,” came a chorus from the Democratic side of the aisle.Afterward, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California called it all “a shameless display of the Republican culture of corruption,” a theme she has used in recent days on a number of issues since DeLay’s indictment in Texas on conspiracy and money laundering charges in connection with campaign finance activities.Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who had predicted a close vote, said he was not aware of “any deals” being made to get the last votes. No Democrats voted for the legislation, although three initially favored it, only to change their minds after talking to Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat.Supporters of the measure said that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear that the country needed more refineries, including new ones outside of the Gulf region. No new refinery has been built since 1976, although large refineries have been expanded to meet growing demand.Critics of the legislation argued a cash-rich industry with huge profits over the past year shouldn’t need government help to build refineries. They said the bill would allow the oil industry to avoid environmental regulations and would lead to dirtier air.Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., accused GOP leaders of using “the hardships and devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita … to pass Republican and industry wish lists” that would do nothing to curtail gasoline prices or help people facing huge heating bills this winter.Pelosi called the bill a rehash of “all the special favors to the industry that were too extreme” for Congress last summer when it passed energy legislation.Barton said the bill simply would give industry more certainty that a refinery project will not be delayed in government red tape.Opponents said the bill would stifle legitimate lawsuits against refinery projects and in some cases override state or local objections if a refinery were located on federal land. A community or citizens group would have to pay an oil company’s legal costs whether they won or lost a lawsuit challenging a refinery under one provision in the bill.Limiting the number of gasoline blends refiners would have to produce to six could hinder the ability of states and cities to meet federal air quality requirements, according to state and county clean air officials, who lobbied against the legislation.Others opposed to the bill were the National League of Cities, nine state attorneys general, and various environmental organizations.—The bill number is H.R. 3893.Additional information at http://thomas.loc.govVail, Colorado