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Reclaiming Oil Subsidies: Senate Democrats Prepping Bill That Would Recover Billions From Big Firms

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Seizing the moment, Senate Democrats are working on legislation that would reclaim billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil and redirect the money toward developing cleaner and cheaper fuel sources instead.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) announced on Thursday that his committee is crafting a measure that would repeal major tax breaks for the five largest oil and gas companies, which reported huge spikes in first-quarter profits this week due to skyrocketing oil prices.

"Now is not the time to stand idly by while large oil and gas companies get billions of dollars in tax breaks -- now is the time to take concrete steps toward cleaner, more affordable, domestically-produced energy," Baucus said in a statement. "Reducing dependence on foreign oil isn't easy, but this plan puts us on a path toward a clean, affordable energy future that works for our planet -- and our pocketbooks."

The bill could be ready as soon as next week.

Democrats seem to have found their own source of renewable energy in some poorly-chosen words by House Speaker John Boehner, who in an interview with ABC News on Monday seemingly abandoned longstanding Republican dogma by conceding that oil companies "ought to be paying their fair share" and that the subsidies are "certainly something we should be looking at."

Boehner's staff and colleagues quickly corrected the speaker. But empowered Democrats were already in motion.

Capitalizing on Boehner's comments -- and anger about high gas prices, and first-quarter profit reports -- President Barack Obama and his press secretary called for immediate action Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) followed suit by pledging their support. "I'm going to try to get it done as soon as I can do it procedurally in the Senate here," Reid told reporters on Wednesday.

Democratic and environmental groups revved up their email lists. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even popped up a new website Thursday morning, dubbing the GOP's relationship with the petroleum industry the "R-Oil Wedding."

Meanwhile, the liberal thinkprogress.org website distributed a video in which House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) told a town hall audience that he favored ending oil subsidies. "[W]e propose to repeal all that," Ryan said of corporate welfare generally. Asked specifically about ending oil subsidies, he said "I agree."

But Ryan's office told Politico that the congressman made his comments in the context of overall corporate tax reform.

The American Petroleum Institute and the rest of the oil and gas lobby have historically had more than enough clout on Capitol Hill to fend off attacks.

In fact, many considered Obama's proposal to repeal the subsidies in his State of the Union speech in January to be dead on arrival. Congress had rejected similar requests in two previous budget proposals, even with Democratic majorities in both houses.

But the API seems to be getting increasingly testy as of late.

The group on Thursday called Baucus' plan "a proposal borne of desperation that would do nothing to reduce gasoline prices." API chief economist John Felmy said in a statement, "If Senator Baucus were serious about gasoline prices, he would focus on further development of our vast resources here at home which would create much needed American jobs, increase revenue to the government, and strengthen our energy security."

Baucus' office said his plan would bar the biggest companies from receiving a credit intended for domestic manufacturers, reduce their foreign tax credits for royalty payments to foreign governments and impose an excise tax on certain Gulf leases.

The billions of dollars recouped through those means would be used to promote demand for clean and domestic fuel, incentivize fuel efficient vehicles and build a clean energy infrastructure.

House Democrats have already introduced a bill that would eliminate $40 billion in tax breaks for big oil and gas companies over five years.

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.

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