By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers who want to ditch the 40-year-old U.S. ban on exporting oil will likely enjoy a victory on Thursday in the Senate banking committee - but they are struggling to garner enough Democratic support to pass the bill in the full chamber.
The legislation is expected to get only one vote in the committee from a Democrat, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of the oil-producing state of North Dakota, a sponsor of the bill.
"Tomorrow you may not see any other Democrats other than me voting for it, but what you will hear is a willingness to have a discussion and address this issue broadly," Heitkamp said in an interview on Wednesday.
If all 54 Senate Republicans vote for the bill, supporters will need six Democrats to reach the 60 votes needed for approval.
Heitkamp and other supporters of lifting the ban sought to gain Democratic votes by including a provision that would allow the president to halt exports if he deemed they were not in the interest of national security. Heitcamp said that mechanism was put into the legislation to respond to concerns about runaway gasoline prices.
The White House said on Wednesday it does not support Senate efforts to reverse the ban even though Heitkamp's bill contains the provision.
However, Heitkamp said she and others were talking with senior White House officials on a regular basis. She said she was confident President Barack Obama could support a balanced bill doing away with the ban if it included measures such as backing renewable energy like solar and wind power.
Pulling that off could be difficult. Adding a measure to make tax breaks for renewables permanent could cause other senators in states heavily reliant on coal sales to back away from the bill.
Heitkamp said it was premature to discuss what kinds of deals could be made to eventually pass the bill, but that some of the issues on the table could be "surprising."
Oil producers say the domestic drilling boom will eventually be choked if the trade restriction, which Congress passed in 1975 after the Arab oil embargo, is not lifted.
Opponents to lifting the ban say it could hurt employment in oil refining and shipbuilding and damage the environment.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who has opposed a full repeal of oil exports, is expected to introduce an amendment on Thursday that would delay the effective date of the oil export ban repeal until after the Government Accountability Office conducts a study on potential job looses caused by the action.
"His amendment is designed to spell out the impact before the harm is done," a Menendez staffer said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)