Conservative coalition wants to see oil exports tied to highway bill

WASHINGTON — Nearly two dozen conservative groups are pushing Republican leaders to allow a House vote on authorizing widespread crude exports as part of a highway spending bill.

The House Rules Committee is meeting Tuesday to mull whether to make as many as three oil export amendments in order during debate on that highway bill later this week.

Read more: Oil export backers plan to use highway bill as vehicle

The issue has united 22 conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, the American Energy Alliance and Americans for Tax Reform. In a letter Tuesday, the organizations urged senators and representatives to repeal the longstanding ban on U.S. oil exports.

“While our groups may have different positions on the highway funding bill, our view is that Republican leadership should allow a crude export amendment on the bill,” the groups said.

If allowed, the amendment strategy could give a big boost to crude exports — a top priority for oil producers and Republican allies on Capitol Hill — by tethering the issue to a federal highway bill that is popular with Democrats. The underlying legislation, which will reauthorize federal highway and transit programs for six years, also is expected to contain another item on many Democrats’ wish list: a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

That could make it tough for House Democrats to vote against the highway bill and ups the odds that any attached oil export provision survives a joint House-Senate conference committee negotiating a final bill. It also could make it more difficult for President Barack Obama to veto the combined legislation, despite an earlier White House threat against a stand-alone oil export bill that passed the House earlier this month.

Related: Oil industry wins big victory as House OKs crude exports

The tactic also could solve a political problem for oil export backers by giving oil exports a glide path through the closely divided Senate. If export language is added to the House transportation bill and surveys a conference committee, the Senate would never face a potentially politically risky vote on oil exports. Instead, the chamber would be presented with the final compromise measure and asked to vote up or down on the whole thing.

Two oil export amendments have been proposed to the House Rules Committee, including one from Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and another from Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas. They are among hundreds of unrelated amendments that are teed up for possible consideration.

Oil export advocates cast the longstanding trade restrictions as a relic of the 1970s — when an OPEC crude embargo prompted gasoline lines and rationing in the United States — and say it doesn’t mesh with today’s surging domestic production.

But opponents argue that unfettered U.S. crude exports would come at the expense of some domestic refineries that can buy discounted American oil today.

Related: Five options for getting crude export bill to president’s desk

The longstanding oil trade restrictions apply to raw, unprocessed crude — not the gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products that refineries churn out and sell globally.

In their joint letter Tuesday, the conservative groups argued that the ban “has restricted the expansion of the U.S. energy economy, which is thriving and delivering lower-cost energy to consumers.”

“Policymakers should look to unleash the potential of the energy economy instead of limiting it,” the groups said.