Senate Republicans used the debate on a $3.5 trillion budget framework to force votes on energy and environmental issues that exposed some potential fractures among Democrats.
Under a process known as a vote-a-rama that lasted into early Wednesday morning, Republicans were able to offer a long series of non-binding amendments relating to issues that could be part of the massive spending package that Democrats will be developing over the next few weeks.
All 50 Senate Democrats will have to hang together to pass the spending bill through the budget reconciliation process, so any rifts could be fatal to the measure. Sen. Joe Manchin (shown above), who represents the coal-producing state of West Virginia, had already indicated reservations about his colleagues' plans for clean energy measures.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, got 17 Democratic votes — a mix of progressives such as Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Brian Schatz of Hawaii and moderates such as Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, and Mark Kelly of Arizona — for an amendment that called for “prohibiting or limiting the issuance of costly Clean Air Act permit requirements on farmers and ranchers in the U.S. or the imposition of new federal methane requirements.”
Ernst made the case for the amendment as she stood next to a sign that said "No Cow Tax."
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., shot back in response that Ernst’s amendment was designed as a message suggesting that the EPA is attempting to regulate methane from farm animals, but he stated that was not the case.
“Democrats are working to advance policies that assist farmers and ranchers in participating in efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions in ways that are nearer to their bottom line,” he said.
North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer introduced an amendment prohibiting the Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA from promulgating rules or guidance that would ban fracking. The measure was adopted 57-42, securing votes from Tester and Machin and energy-state Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. Maine independent Angus King also voted for the amendment.
Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee also secured the 53-46 approval of an amendment that he intended to ensure that “rural electric cooperatives remain eligible for USDA financing of construction, maintenance, or improvement of fossil-fuel-burning plants.”
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A Climate 21 transition memo released last fall recommended USDA "accelerate the retirement of coal power plants financed by the Rural Utilities Service," Boozman said his amendment “reinforces the need to embrace an all-of-the-above approach that encourages the responsible use of our nation’s unmatched energy resources.”
Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., argued that rural communities want to be at the forefront of the transition to clean energy. “It’s important to know that our rural partners are asking to be a part of that transition,” Stabenow said. “They don’t want an amendment that blocks them from being able to do that.”
But four other Democrats voted for Boozman's amendment, Kelly, Manchin, Sinema and Tester.
Attention later turned to electric vehicles when GOP Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska introduced an amendment to means-test electric vehicle tax credits to ensure high-income individuals don't get government subsidies to buy cars. Fischer said that Americans making over $10,000 a year claimed nearly 80% of electric vehicle tax credits in 2016. She argued that Democratic plans would “subsidize luxury vehicles only the rich can afford using money from hardworking taxpayers."
Kelly, Sinema and Manchin all voted for the amendment. Stabenow said that the amendment was “just plain anti-pickup truck” and reduced the incentive for families and small businesses to invest in all-electric vehicles.
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