Eager for a debate they believe will highlight rising gas prices on President Obama's watch, Senate Republicans on Monday gave the green light to debating Democrats' plan to end tax subsidies for oil and gas companies.
The move was unexpected. Democrats thought the GOP would block the measure outright — and Republicans said they can still do that later. But for now, they said the chance to talk about gas prices was too good.
"Frankly, I can't think of a better way to illustrate how completely out of touch they are on this issue," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans' floor leader.
It's the first major debate on oil this year, and it comes as prices consumers are paying at the pump have leapt in recent weeks, with the national average price rising 23 cents in the past month, according to GasBuddy.com.
Democrats, who control the Senate, want to eliminate the average $2.4 billion a year in tax benefits that will be paid to the top oil companies for the next decade.
"As we all pay more at the pump, Big Oil rakes in more money," said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and sponsor of the legislation.
Monday's 92-4 vote was only to begin consideration of the bill. Republicans said they still have time to defeat it later in the process.
And of the four opposing votes, three were Democrats — signaling at least some opposition within their party's own ranks to trying to strip the tax benefits from oil companies.
Across the Capitol, meanwhile, Republicans who control the House were struggling to find the same kind of unanimity as they try to head off the impending halt of all federally sponsored highway building, which is looming at the end of this week.
House Republicans are trying to pass a 90-day stopgap extension of road-building authority, but Democrats balked, saying the chamber should instead pass a bipartisan Senate version of the bill that gives the program two full years' authority and siphons money from the treasury to keep up with construction plans.
The GOP had scheduled a vote on its short-term bill for Monday night but pulled it from the schedule after Democrats made clear they wouldn't go along.
"We are in the midst of bipartisan conversations about a short-term extension of the highway bill," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner. "To facilitate those conversations, the House vote on an extension will occur later this week rather than tonight."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said last week he was "not inclined" to accept a short-term bill. But on Monday he said he would be open to that as long as Republicans agreed to a path to consider the Senate's bill in the near future.
"The American people will know who to blame if chaos in the House Republican caucus costs us almost 3 million jobs," he said.
He and his fellow Democrats also said they'll push for votes on two small business tax-cut provisions Mr. Obama called for in his budget.
One plan calls for a 10 percent tax credit for businesses that increase payroll in 2012. With a maximum increase in eligible wages of $5 million per employer and the amount of the credit capped at $500,000, the benefit targets small businesses.
The other proposal would allow businesses to write off 100 percent of major purchases made this year. Typically, major purchases, such as large equipment or buildings, must be written off over many years.
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