The Senate voted down an amendment today that would have done away with $6 billion in tax subsidies for ethanol producers. The measure, introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), was defeated 40–59, falling short of the 60-vote threshold required invoke cloture.
Coburn’s amendment was strongly supported by conservative groups like Club for Growth, Koch Industries, as well as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, but the Oklahoma Republican faced intense opposition from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). Norquist, who is seen as a highly influential figure among GOP lawmakers, lobbied against the amendment on the grounds that it violated the ATR “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” While he favors the elimination of ethanol subsidies, Norquist argued that Coburn’s measure amounted to a tax increase because it did not include any offsetting tax cuts.
In the end, 33 Republicans sided with Coburn, who accused Norquist of espousing a rigid ideology that was standing in the way of efforts to reduce the deficit by eliminating wasteful tax breaks. “I think you all think he has a whole lot more hold than I think he has,” Coburn told reporters Tuesday before the vote. “The fact is it’s not a good position to put yourself in when you say, ‘Here’s a tax expenditure that nobody needs, and yet we have to give somebody else a tax cut to take away this.’”
The two have been engaged in a public sparring match ever since Coburn voted to support the final recommendations of President Obama’s fiscal commission, which advocated raising additional revenue through comprehensive tax reform.
ATR had urged Republicans to vote against Coburn’s measure unless they also agreed to support an amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) that would eliminate ethanol subsidies and permanently do away with the estate tax. ATR spokesman John Kartch expressed disappointment following the vote, saying that it represented a “lost opportunity” for lawmakers to end ethanol tax breaks, and accused Coburn of being a supporter of ethanol who was simply trying to “put Republicans in the awkward position of voting for a tax increase.” A successful cloture vote on Coburn’s amendment would have allowed for votes on a series of additional measures, including DeMint’s.
In a statement following the vote, Coburn said the Senate’s refusal to eliminate ethanol subsidies “highlights the incompetence and dysfunction of this body.” He scolded Democratic leaders, who had been whipping against the amendment to the procedural method Coburn used to force the vote, and applauded his Republican colleagues who voted with him (and by extension, against Norquist).
“Taxpayers obviously need to give the Senate another refresher course on who runs government,” Coburn said. “However, taxpayers should be encouraged that Republican senators overwhelmingly rejected the ludicrous argument that eliminating tax earmarks is a tax increase.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) told reporters he planned to hold a series of votes next Friday on additional measures relating to ethanol subsidies.
This post has been updated.