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Energy-efficiency bill bogs down in Senate, dragged down by dispute over Keystone XL pipeline

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WASHINGTON - A widely popular, bipartisan energy savings bill fell victim in the Senate on Monday to election-year politics and the Obama administration's continued indecision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

A procedural motion to end debate and bring the measure to a floor vote without amendments fell five votes short of the 60 votes needed for approval.

The legislation would tighten efficiency guidelines for new federal buildings and provide tax incentives to make homes and commercial buildings more efficient. It easily cleared a procedural hurdle last week but stalled after Republican demand for votes on the Canada-to-Texas pipeline and on new administration-proposed greenhouse gas limits for coal-burning power plants.

Republicans are united in favour of the pipeline and against the new power plant regulations, while Democrats are deeply divided on both. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a parliamentary manoeuvr to block Senate votes on the pipeline and power plant rules as part of the energy savings bill.

Reid said Monday that Republicans were "still seeking a ransom" on the energy bill by insisting on the Keystone amendment and other votes. He said he had agreed to a long-standing request from pipeline supporters for a separate vote on the pipeline if its supporters would let the efficiency bill sail through unamended.

Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Reid's manoeuvr disappointing. "The Senate used to be a place of great debate and accomplishment. Now it is run like a dictatorship shutting out the voices of millions of Americans," he said.

Election-year politics loomed on all sides.

Democrats said Republicans were unwilling to hand a victory on the energy efficiency bill to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a co-author of the bill who is facing a re-election challenge from Republican Scott Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who now lives in New Hampshire. Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio also co-authored the energy legislation.

Shaheen and Portman both said they were disappointed at the defeat of a plan they said would create almost 200,000 jobs, reduce pollution and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

"People in New Hampshire and across the country lost out today because of election-year politics," Shaheen said, while Portman called the vote "a disappointing example of Washington's dysfunction."

Partisan discord was so strong that three Republican senators who co-sponsored the energy legislation voted against it Monday to protest the exclusion of amendments. Among those voting no was Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who has been the Senate's chief GOP supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Democrats also said the GOP wants to deny political cover to Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a tough re-election fight in Louisiana and to other Democrats in energy-producing states who have pushed for the pipeline's approval during their campaigns. A Senate vote on the pipeline would help Landrieu and Democrats such as Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, even if it fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance it. President Barack Obama delayed the project indefinitely last month, citing uncertainty over the pipeline's route though Nebraska.

Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, has made Keystone approval an important part of her re-election campaign. She angrily denounced Republicans who opposed the energy bill, a move that also blocks a Senate vote on the pipeline.

"They chose to have an issue, as opposed to having a pipeline, and that's very disappointing," Landrieu said, naming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as the chief culprit.

On the other side, Republicans accused Democrats of dodging a vote on blocking the Obama administration's proposed limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. No matter the outcome, having to vote on what Republicans call Obama's "war on coal" would be uncomfortable for Democrats struggling to hold their Senate majority. Many Democrats in energy-producing states oppose the regulations.

Republicans also wanted a vote on boosting exports of liquefied natural gas, another hot political issue. Lawmakers from both parties support increased gas exports, although 22 senators — mostly Democrats — wrote a letter to Obama last week warning that increased exports could lead to higher prices for consumers and possible shortages next winter.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that Obama is committed to increasing energy security and efficiency and "will not rest even if Congress won't act."

Obama announced a series of executive actions last week aimed at increasing energy efficiency and reducing U.S. reliance on carbon fuels. They include the completion of energy efficiency standards for walk-in coolers and freezers typically used in grocery stores. He also announced that more than 300 companies, including Wal-Mart, have pledged to boost their use of solar technology.

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