WASHINGTON Legislation to rein in excessive energy speculation failed a key procedural vote on Friday to move forward in the Senate, and now lawmakers will set aside the bill to consider other legislation.
The House of Representatives may take up its own anti-speculation bill next week, and then lawmakers will get ready to leave for their month-long recess in August.
Sixty "yes" votes were required in the 100-member Senate for the bill to move forward, but the measure received only 50 "yes" votes, while 43 lawmakers opposed.
Senate Democrats said the legislation was needed to give the government new powers to curb speculators, whom many lawmakers accused of being behind the run-up in crude oil and gasoline prices.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said "we'll come back and visit" the legislation, though he did not specify when.
"Republicans once again have run away from an opportunity to provide a short-term solution to our energy crisis," Reid said. "While Democrats have worked to stop greedy speculators who artificially inflate oil prices, Republicans have chosen to protect them."
Senate Republicans strongly opposed the bill because it focused only on speculation, and they argued the legislation should be modified to also boost U.S. oil production by allowing more offshore drilling and developing vast oil shale fields in the West.
Republicans said tight petroleum supplies that were unable to keep up with demand were the cause of high energy prices.
"Americans are insisting we do more. They want us to do something to cut the price of gas and lessen our dependence on Middle East oil," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
"And so I ask my friends (Democrats) on the other side the same simple question I asked them yesterday: If you won't act now, with dialysis patients cutting back on treatments because of high gas prices, when will you? What is it going to take?" McConnell said.
Democrats wanted to protect offshore areas closed to energy exploration and pointed out that oil companies already held millions of acres they leased from the government that were not being drilled.
Before the August recess, Reid said he hoped to move bills that can help consumers in the short term, such as releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to put more supplies in the market and boosting funds for the federal program that helps low income families pay their energy bills.
The House may go after speculators next week with a bill cleared by the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
That legislation would impose tough position limits to restrict the number of futures contracts that play a significant price-setting role in both agriculture and energy that could be controlled by speculators.
Like the Senate bill, the House bill would not raise speculators' margins, which is the amount of money a trader must put up to buy or sell a commodity futures contracts.
Other key points of the House bill are:
*CFTC must publish reports that provide the number of positions and total value of index funds, and other passive, long-only and short-only investors in energy and agriculture markets;
*Conditions will be set for granting hedge exemptions from position limits, mostly for commercial purposes;
*Authorizes 100 new CFTC employees to monitor markets;
*CFTC will report on impact on over-the-counter markets from position limits on exchanges;
*Reporting will become mandatory for over-the-counter trading of look-alike agricultural and energy contracts.
(Editing by Christian Wiessner)