On Tuesday, the Senate voted 40-59 against an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to end the annual $6 billion (45-cents-per-gallon) tax subsidy for ethanol, as well as the 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was a co-author of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit Repeal Act. As she explained, the subsidy bestows $15 million per day on large oil companies for "no good reason" and drives up food prices.
Yet Tuesday, Feinstein voted against her own amendment.
Feinstein explained to reporters that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised her a vote on a similar amendment. That vote is scheduled for today. She voted against her own measure "because of the process that Coburn used." Coburn switched legislative language to win a floor vote that had been stalled. Party-line Dems who voted against the bill played enforcer.
Problem: Unlike Feinstein, six senators in the Democratic caucus voted for the amendment.
Beltway types have focused on the fact that 33 GOP senators joined Coburn to battle the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. ATR had painted Coburn-Feinstein as a tax increase. (When you end a tax credit, net federal revenue rises.) But the other story here is the Democrats' love of big government spending, even when the money lands in oil company coffers.
The ethanol subsidy is a corporate-welfare bonanza. It started out with good intentions -- promoting energy independence in an environmentally friendly fashion. Thirty years later, Americans are more dependent on foreign oil, and the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters want to end ethanol subsidies.
Feinstein is acutely aware that 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes to ethanol. She visited the San Joaquin Valley in California, where feed-corn prices have tripled. Farmers told her it was getting cheaper to slaughter animals than feed them.
So ethanol subsidies drive up the federal deficit, no longer enjoy enviros' support and make voters pay more to eat. Case closed, you would think.
But you cannot underestimate the power of corn-state senators from both parties and Iowa's super-size role in presidential elections.
Also, when Washington gives away tax dollars, it creates a lobby to keep the money coming. The ethanol lobby argues that if Washington turns off the subsidy spigot and tariff tap, the industry will dry up. Even though Coburn-Feinstein did not terminate the federal mandate that oil refiners blend gasoline with renewable fuels.
Feinstein says she wants to negotiate with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who want to revamp ethanol subsidies by tying them to the price of oil and sustaining them through 2014.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has said President Obama is for "reforming" the subsidy, "not repealing it."
When there was a moment to confront the ethanol tide, Feinstein and fellow California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer chose to protest Coburn's methods. If Feinstein wins 60 votes on a solid substitute to her original amendment, kudos to her. If Feinstein-Coburn fails, it is on Feinstein.
As Coburn told Politico, "Go home and tell people you refused to vote on the amendment because you didn't like the way it was brought up. Let's see how that sells to the American people."
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