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Senator McCain vows Jones Act will be repealed one day

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks to reporters after a procedural vote on Capitol Hill in Washington September 10, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator John McCain said a more than 90-year-old law that requires ships servicing coastal businesses to be built and mostly staffed by U.S. crews will be repealed sooner or later if lawmakers keep fighting the trade restriction.

Oil refiners, and many manufacturers and state governments oppose the Jones Act, saying the requirement increases costs by blocking shipping by cheaper foreign-built and foreign-flagged vessels.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a rare waiver of the act in 2012 when superstorm Sandy led to fuel shortages at gas stations on the East Coast, allowing foreign vessels to bring fuel from Gulf Coast refiners. But the act has been blamed for causing bottlenecks, including a shortage of rock salt for New Jersey roads during a recent severe winter storm.

McCain, an Arizona Republican and the incoming chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, estimates that consumers could save about $1 billion annually if the Jones Act was lifted. He introduced a bill in 2010 to repeal it but estimated soon after that he probably only had about 20 votes in the 100-member chamber.

He said despite tough opposition it is a fight that will win one day. “It’s one of these things you just propose amendments to bills and encourage hearings and sooner or later the dam breaks,” McCain said after a speech at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“But I have to tell you ... the power of this maritime lobby is as powerful as anybody or any organization I have run up against in my political career. All I can do is appeal to the patron saint of lost causes and keep pressing and pressing and sooner or later you have to succeed,” he said.

Supporters of the Jones Act say it promotes jobs in domestic shipbuilding and that it has wide support in Congress because workers in all 50 U.S. states make components for those vessels.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Jonathan Oatis