* Natgas vehicles plan needs 60 votes to pass
* "It's probably not going to pass"-Republican Senator Burr
* Plan opposed by conservative groups, Koch Industries
* Obama, Pickens, Senate majority leader support concept
By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON, March 13 The U.S. Senate will
vote Tuesday on tax incentives for natural gas vehicles, a
bipartisan plan praised by those who say it could reduce the
country's dependence on foreign oil but panned by conservative
groups as an unnecessary subsidy.
The idea, which is unlikely to find enough support to pass,
pits billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who has been promoting
natural gas since 2008, against Koch Industries, an energy
conglomerate that sees the plan as interference in the private
Praised by President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid, the five-year plan would spur purchases of long-haul
trucks and commercial vehicles that can run on cheap and
abundant U.S. natural gas. The subsidies would be paid for from
fees charged to users of the fuel.
As gasoline prices spike to new highs for this time of year,
Obama has promoted the concept as part of a long-term plan to
reduce gasoline prices, a top issue ahead of November elections.
The bill would also provide tax credits for building pumps
and other infrastructure needed for filling more vehicles with
"If you vote against this amendment, you cannot go home and
tell your constituents that you have done everything you can to
reduce (gasoline) prices," said Robert Menendez, a New Jersey
Democrat who cosponsored the bill.
But Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who has backed
the bill for three years, said Monday that he expects it to fall
short of the 60 votes it needs to advance as part of the
Senate's highway funding bill.
"This is the first chance to come to the Senate floor and
have a vote, and you know what? It's probably not going to pass.
That's the disappointing thing of it," Burr said in a speech in
the Senate, where he railed against the bill's critics.
CONSERVATIVE GROUPS TRACKING VOTES
Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation, Club
for Growth, and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity have
put senators on notice that they will be tracking who votes for
The groups have said the program might not generate enough
money to pay for the subsidies and argued the private sector
should adopt the vehicles as it sees fit.
"If natural gas vehicles are truly advantageous and
economically efficient, then consumers will demand that they be
developed without political mandates that exhaust more taxpayer
dollars," Koch executive vice-president Richard Fink said on the
Americans for Tax Reform has said the program has the
potential of "skewing the market, inflating natural gas
consumption, and potentially driving up the cost of natural
But Burr argued the program would not cost taxpayers a dime,
and would rather accelerate a shift that is already under way.
It has the potential to lower gasoline prices by reducing demand
for oil from the Middle East, he said.
"I was rated as the seventh-most conservative member of the
United States Senate," he said in his speech, imploring his
colleagues to support the bill. "This year, I bought a hybrid. I
bought a hybrid because I was tired of paying money to people
who hate us."
If the Senate bill passes, the measure would still need to
find enough support in the House of Representatives, which has
not yet passed a highway funding bill.
Last year, about 200 House lawmakers signed on to support a
similar natural gas vehicle plan in the House, but 20 of them
have since withdrawn their support.
Republican House Leader Eric Cantor said last week he
opposed the plan.
"Given the situation that we have with the budget and given
the fact that natural gas prices are now at least at a 10-year
low, I don't even see the sense in that policy, not to mention
just the overall aspect of Washington coming in, picking winners
and losers, that's what we are trying to get away from," Cantor
told The Hill's E2 Wire, a Capitol Hill blog.
(Editing by Dale Hudson)