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November 27, 2014

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Dean Heller files amendment that repeals tax breaks for oil companies

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Harry Hamburg / AP

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 15, 2011.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller still probably won’t be voting for the Democrats’ Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act when the Senate votes on it later this week. But that didn’t stop him from pulling a sleight of hand Tuesday to claim the issue as his own.

Heller filed the Gas Price Relief Act as an amendment to the Democrats’ bill on Tuesday, in which he proposed Congress repeal tax breaks enjoyed by the largest oil and gas companies and put that money toward reducing the gas tax, the highway trust fund, and paying for increased oil drilling and construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Heller called the amendment “a compromise containing solutions to the issues we are facing today” and “a common-sense, all-of-the-above strategy to provide for the development of our domestic energy resources.”

But it’s also a turnaround for Heller, who has voted in the recent past to preserve those same oil and gas subsidies and has said that while he’s open to a discussion about closing the loopholes, he’s only willing to talk about that in the context of a larger tax code overhaul — which the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsides Act is not.

A spokesman for Heller dismissed the suggestion that filing the amendment at all contradicts his earlier positions, explaining that the expedited schedule is because “an overhaul of the tax code is not going to happen this year, nor is it going to help anyone with gas prices this year.”

Congress is likely to take up a tax code overhaul either in its post-election “lame duck” session at the end of 2012 or in early 2013. Many provisions of the tax code — including the lowered individual tax rates that have been in place since the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency — expire in late 2012.

Oil and gas subsidies, however, are very much a living campaign issue leading up to November.

Heller has come under constant fire for voting to preserve oil and gas subsidies from Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, his chief rival for the Senate.

Click to enlarge photo

Congresswoman Shelly Berkley is trying to draw a parallel between Sen. Dean Heller and Rush Limbaugh.

“If Dean Heller has the power to address high gas prices, why isn’t he?” the Berkley campaign challenged Heller just last month. “He’s more concerned with padding the pockets of Big Oil.”

Tuesday’s legislation would appear to be Heller’s answer.

Berkley has herself taken aim at oil and gas subsidies in many forms, most recently in the form of an energy bill in which she proposed repealing the subsidies and putting the money saved toward renewable energy tax incentives.

The bill up for consideration in the Senate — penned by New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez — is conceptually similar: It repeals oil and gas subsidies and puts the money toward renewable energy, alternative fuels and deficit reduction.

Heller’s bill, which is revenue-neutral, according to his office, does not put any money toward renewable energy projects. Heller has dismissed many of the renewable energy incentive programs Democrats are trying to renew as “failed stimulus” ventures — though Tuesday he took pains to clarify his wider position on renewable energy.

“Development of renewable energy is something I have long advocated for. … There is no doubt alternative sources of energy are our future,” Heller said “Today’s debate is about a bill that is merely two failed policies repackaged as a political stunt.”

He cited Nevada’s rising gas prices and its effect on the tourism industry, especially, as more important areas to focus on.

Heller has not said what, if anything, he plans to do with this legislation past this week. His amendment is not expected to get a vote as the Senate considers Menendez’s underlying legislation, but Heller's office will not say whether he plans to push for it as a stand-alone bill.

Regardless, the existence of this legislation will now complicate what was, to this point, an easy and straightforward campaigning issue for his Democratic opponent.

She, however, does not seem keen on ceding any turf on the oil and gas issue to Heller — or change the general direction of her talking points.

“This week, Washington Republicans are showing Nevada families exactly who their priority is,” Berkley said in a floor speech Tuesday night. “Republicans are reiterating their support for taxpayer giveaways for Big Oil despite the fact that gas prices are soaring and the oil industry made $137 billion in profits last year. … Republicans, get your priorities straight.”

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