Big Oil Tax Break Vote Could Hurt Vulnerable Republicans

The Senate votes today on whether to eliminate tax breaks for major oil companies.

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It's been "Big Oil" time on Capitol Hill recently. Last week, the House spent much of its floor time debating pro-drilling bills, and top industry executives were called before a Senate committee to make their case for high gas prices and their companies' high profits. Today, the Big Oil show continues, as Democrats in the Senate try to advance a bill that would undo a number of tax breaks for the five top-producing American oil companies. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on gas prices.]

The vote this evening on the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act appears to be purely a test vote. With Republicans and oil-state Democrats, like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu in opposition, it's not expected to get the 60 votes needed to proceed. Even if it did pass the Senate and go to the House, the Republican majority there would probably guarantee its death on arrival.

However, Democrats aren't missing an opportunity to use the vote to put Republicans up for election in 2012 in the hot seat. The revenue from the bill, which would eliminate a handful of corporate tax deductions for only the top five oil companies, would be used to reduce the deficit. So while adopting the now familiar cry of deficit hawks on the right, Democrats have turned the tables by framing a vote against this bill as a vote against deficit reduction. Not to mention, since opponents of this bill are essentially coming to the defense of majors in the oil industry, Democrats could the vote as a chance to tie vulnerable lawmakers to the publicly maligned industry. [See a slide show of the 10 priciest years for gas.]

For example, in a press release issued earlier this afternoon, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee targeted newly-appointed Republican Sen. Dean Heller from Nevada. Heller's expected to have a tough race against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in 2012 to keep his seat. "Gas prices are through the roof and so are Big Oil company profits--the last thing these Republican donors need are taxpayer funded hand outs," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the DSCC in the release. "Dean Heller should finally do the right thing tonight and vote to put an end to these taxpayer funded giveaways." 

Despite such attacks, the debate on the floor today suggests that Republicans and supporters of the oil industry won't take the bait. Though Democrats say this bill won't affect gas prices, Republicans have defended their position, arguing that the legislation would worsen Americans' pain at the pump. "They're going to solve your problems by compounding your problems," said Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on Tuesday about the proponents of the bill. "We're going to raise the costs of the oil companies by raising their taxes, which means you'll pay more at the pump. It is economic illiteracy, and it is what's wrong up here in Washington." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Landrieu also pointed out that the oil companies in question already pay more taxes as a percentage of their earnings than do companies in other industries, and that discontinuing tax breaks would have an effect on the 9.2 million Americans that work in or around the companies. "The industry pays its taxes and then some," she said.

The curtain doesn't close after this evening's vote. Tomorrow, the Senate will consider a bill similar to the pro-drilling legislation passed last week in the House.