House passes bill to aid mass transit

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The House on Thursday passed a bill to boost mass transit in the face of high gas prices, but Republicans blocked Democrats’ centerpiece energy plan to try to force energy companies to drill on lands they’ve already leased.

Democrats said the “use it or lose it” measure would compel oil companies to surrender oil and gas leases on federal land they’re not drilling on and prohibit these companies from acquiring new leases. Democrats have accused the oil industry of “warehousing” 68 million acres of land on which they already hold leases so as to keep the domestic oil supply lower and prices higher.

But the bill failed to muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass under expedited rules, meaning Democrats go home for their July 4th break without their key legislation.

The vote was 223-195 in favor - 56 votes shy of the two-thirds needed to pass. Only 11 Republicans joined 212 Democrats in supporting the measure, while 19 Democrats and 176 Republicans voted no.

Opponents said the bill did nothing to immediately increase the supply of oil.

In the Senate, a vote on a mortgage aid package was postponed until after next week’s holiday recess over a senator’s insistence to include a renewable energy tax credit.

Nevada Republican, refused to withdraw his $6 billion package of tax breaks for renewable energy producers. The incentives have bipartisan backing, but House Democrats oppose including them without balancing them with tax increases to prevent an increase in the deficit.

The overall mortgage bill would provide $300 billion to help homeowners facing foreclosure to refinance their mortgages at lower rates, with the loans backed by the government. The package also would provide first-time home buyers with up to $8,000 in tax credits.

On the House energy debate, lawmakers did vote 322-98 to provide local mass transit systems with $1.7 billion over the next two years to lower fares and expand operations as more riders flock to public transit.

Democrats proposed the assistance as lawmakers struggled to respond to public anger of high gasoline costs.

The legislation marks the first time federal money would be used to support local mass transit operating costs. Federal transit money normally is limited to help pay capital costs.

Supporters said transit systems need financial help to meet increased demand as more people turn to public transportation because of high gasoline prices.

The House also approved a bill to urge the Bush administration to take steps to curb excessive speculation in the petroleum futures markets. The vote on the resolution was 402-19.

“The most dramatic, immediate impact we can do is to clamp down on speculation, because this is clearly what has moved the price of oil,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrat.

The oil speculation measure calls on Commodity Futures Trading Commission to investigate accusations of excessive oil speculation so as to “restore order to the market to ensure prices are fair.”

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