Bill to expedite construction of oil refineries passes House

Republican leaders stretch vote over 40 minutes to round up enough support, 212-210


WASHINGTON -- The House approved legislation yesterday that seeks to spur construction of oil refineries - the first major congressional response to rising energy prices and tight supplies after Hurricane Katrina.

The bill passed 212-210, but only after House Republican leaders extended the roll call from a scheduled five minutes to about 40 minutes to round up the votes. Partisan tension boiled over, as Democrats shouted, "Shame! Shame! Shame!" to protest the prolonged vote.

The measure was approved after the bill's GOP sponsors dropped the most contentious provision - relaxing anti-pollution rules for refinery projects - after moderate Republicans threatened to vote against the bill and possibly kill it.

Still, every Democrat who was present voted "no," contending that the legislation was designed more to shield the GOP-controlled Congress from political fallout from high gas prices than to bring down fuel costs.

"Don't go home and tell your constituents you did anything for them. In truth, you haven't," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where lawmakers are drafting their proposals, including offering tax breaks to encourage refinery construction and expansion.

The "Gasoline for America's Security Act" would direct the president to designate sites, including former military bases, for new refineries and to streamline the issuance of permits.

It would limit the different gasoline blends produced to meet clean-air rules, an effort to make it easier to move fuel from one region to another during supply shortages.

In addition, it would require the Federal Trade Commission to investigate allegations of price-gouging after a disaster and give the agency authority to impose fines.

The measure is among a raft of energy-related bills that have shot to the top of the congressional agenda since Katrina knocked out refineries in the Gulf Coast region, where about half of the U.S. refining capacity is located. The loss of those refineries has driven up gasoline prices, focused attention on the vulnerability of the nation's energy infrastructure and caused political headaches on Capitol Hill.

Environmentalists accused the bill's sponsors of attempting to exploit the hurricanes to advance initiatives long sought by the energy industry that did not get into the energy bill that Bush signed earlier this year.

As a sign of the bill's difficult prospects in the Senate, House Republican leaders were forced to scramble just to get enough votes from their own caucus.

The long roll call was reminiscent of the November 2003 vote on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, when House leaders had to extend the vote for three hours in the middle of the night while Bush and GOP leaders twisted arms.

And even with the anti-pollution provision gone, said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, one of 13 Republican opponents, the bill will "weaken environmental laws, interfere with states' prerogatives, and give undue aid to oil companies."

Although known for his pro-environmental stances, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest joined fellow Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett in supporting the measure. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, could not be reached for comment last night.

Meanwhile, leading House Republicans signaled yesterday that they will try to weaken a Senate effort to limit interrogation techniques that U.S. service members can use on terrorism suspects.

Their remarks made clear that the language in the Senate-passed military spending bill faces a tough time in bargaining between the Senate and House. The Senate approved the $445 billion bill 97-0 yesterday.

A provision that has drawn a veto threat from Bush was sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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