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Coburn vs. Big Corn

June 14, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK] has stuck his neck out and is forcing a vote today on an amendment (identical to S.871) to repeal ethanol tax subsidies. Ethanol subsidies cost the government atlas $5 billion per year and they are opposed by groups like the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action on environmental grounds and by groups like Koch Industries on grounds that they distort energy market forces. On the other side, however, are Big Ag corporations like Monsanto, whose Roundup-resistant-corn-seed sales have skyrocketed under the subsidies, and they seem to be winning.

Given the savings that would be generated by the amendment — about $50 billion over the 10-year budget window — you might think that just about everyone in Congress would want to get behind this. But that’s not the case. Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] and the Senate Dem leadership is actively whipping against it, supposedly because they are upset that Coburn did not seek their consent before filing a cloture petition to force a vote:

The Senate Democratic leadership is urging Democrats to vote against Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) amendment to kill ethanol industry tax incentives Tuesday, according to aides.

The politics of ethanol split along lines that are more regional than partisan. But Democratic leaders are upset that Coburn last week used an uncommon procedural tactic to force a test vote on ending the credit for blending ethanol into gasoline and on repealing the ethanol import tariff.

A Democratic aide said the opposition to the Coburn amendment is “on procedural grounds.”

“Coburn doesn’t run the Senate,” the aide said.

The other side of the aisle has their own excuse for not supporting the amendment. Conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist has labeled the amendment a tax increase and wants any new revenues that would be raised by it to be offset with new tax subsidies elsewhere. Obviously that’s no way to reduce deficits and begin to chip away at the debt, but Norquist has long promoted a hardline position that U.S. finances should be balanced only through lower taxes and lower spending and he seems to think that Coburn’s approach to deficit reduction represents a threat to his ideology.

If these senators can’t agree on something like this that saves money and has support from interest groups across the political spectrum, how will they ever achieve a balanced budget?

UPDATE: …and Big Corn wins. Coburn’s amendment was rejected by a vote of 40 (yeas) to 59 (nays). Full roll call details coming shortly here

UPDATE 2: To dispel any confusion, the Senate did end up passing a different amendment to end the subsidies. The final vote was 73-27.  

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