House OKs fees, taxes on oil firms


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, accompanied by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md., talks about the work of the 110th Congress during their first 100 hours during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Published: Friday, January 19, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 10:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The House wrapped up the Democrats' "100 Hours" legislative sprint Thursday with time to spare, voting to recoup billions of dollars in lost royalties from oil and gas companies and roll back industry tax breaks.

The energy bill capped a two-week drumbeat of votes on legislation that, while popular with voters last fall, awaits a sketchy fate in the Senate.

The House bill, approved 264-123, sets a conservation fee on oil and gas from the Gulf of Mexico, attempts to recoup royalties lost because of a government error in drilling leases in the late 1990s, and rolls back several oil industry tax breaks.

"In the November election, the American people signaled their wish for change — a wish for our country to go in a new direction," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "Democrats promised that we would, and these past two weeks, we have delivered on our promise."

Democrats accomplished their early legislative goals in 87 hours, adopting new ethics rules and passing bills raising the minimum wage, expanding taxpayer financed research into embryonic stem cells, forcing more homeland security measures, directing the federal government to negotiate for cheaper Medicare prescription drugs and lowering interest rates on subsidized student loans.

Democrats pushed the legislation through swiftly, denying Republicans any opportunity to amend bills, and established themselves as the vanguard for the Democratic agenda. But internal friction within both parties, the potential for partisan gridlock in the Senate and confrontation with the White House over the war in Iraq signal less, not more, legislative production in the weeks ahead.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans on Thursday struggled to untangle a partisan knot that threatened to sink ethics legislation. The episode illustrated how hampered Senate Democrats are to impose their will with their razor-thin majority.

The past two weeks also took the glow off the cooperative tone both parties set in the opening day of the new Congress. House Republicans complained bitterly about being denied amendments on the legislation, an echo of Democratic complaints during the 12 years of Republican dominance.

"We are short-circuiting democracy here, and I think my colleagues on both sides of the aisle understand it," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "I'm here today to ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to live up to the promises that were made, to live up to the desire to be treated fairly."

Democrats were not sympathetic. "We are working on an agenda that the minority would not or could not do, and we're fulfilling our promise to the American people," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Rules Committee. "And all the whining you can do, all of it you can produce will not deter us from it."

Still some Democrats were eager to move on to a more deliberative pace.

"One of the things that we were savagely critical of is the fact that the Republicans did not follow the regular order," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "Now it is time for us to get back and take ourselves seriously and proceed under the regular order."

For all its speed, the House legislation now enters the quicksands of the Senate, where Republicans already are displaying their ability to alter or slow down the Democratic agenda.

Senate Republicans, for instance, were trying to use the ethics legislation to extract a promise from Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada that the Senate would get a vote on legislation to give the president authority to challenge individual spending items for elimination.

Republicans insisted on attaching $8.3 billion in small business tax breaks to a Senate version of minimum wage legislation. The legislation was written jointly by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and the committee's ranking Republican, Charles Grassley. Reid has said he would support the tax breaks to pass the new wage floor. But House Democrats have objected, noting that tax legislation must originate in the House, with the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Senate Democrats were essentially telling the House that Congress would not raise the minimum wage if it did not contain tax breaks.

"How are you going to explain that?" he asked. "I don't know what Baucus and Reid are talking about."

Senate Republicans also planned to press for different legislation dealing with college tuition. The House bill would cut in half the interest rates paid by college graduates for their need-based, federally subsidized loans. Republicans have argued that students would be better helped by expanding federal tuition grants.

If passed by the Senate, the prescription drug bill and the stem cell research bills also face presidential vetoes. The House vote margins were not sufficient to override a veto.

But the prescription drug bill may not even reach the president in its current form. Baucus and other senators want to scale back the scope of the House bill, by targeting the drugs that the government would be permitted to bargain for prices.

If the partisan friction were not enough, both parties face internal conflicts as well.

Several House and Senate Republicans have objected to President Bush's troop boosting plan for Iraq. Two Republican senators — Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine — have singed on to a nonbinding resolution opposing the insertion of 21,500 new troops into the war.

Democrats are divided themselves, unable to agree on how to express their opposition to Bush. Some prefer a nonbonding resolution, while others in the House and Senate want more muscular legislation specifically limiting Bush's ability to act on his strategy.

In the House, Pelosi and some of her key committee chairmen were on a collision course over how to address global warming legislation. Pelosi wants to create a special committee to recommend legislation, at least duplicating work by committees that have jurisdiction on climate change issues.

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