Senators from both parties had an opportunity this week to take steps toward reducing the federal budget deficit, making the tax code more rational and helping embattled consumers. And they blew it.

Looking at the 59-40 vote against ending ethanol subsidies was like watching a batter get three strikes on one pitch.

The bill was an amendment that would eliminate, by July 1, the 45-cents-per-gallon subsidy paid to refiners for using corn-based ethanol. The simple move would save $6 billion a year, which could be redirected to reduce the federal deficit.

The subsidies are wasteful, unnecessary and force the price of food to increase, but they benefit a small but politically powerful group of agribusiness and energy interests.

Almost all Democrats and farm state Republicans sided with the special interests and came together to kill the bill, which fell 20 votes short of the 60 needed to move past a procedural hurdle.

Fortunately, both Maine senators were on the right side and voted to end the subsidies. They rightly recognize that these subsidies amount to, in Sen. Olympia Snowe’s words, “a tax on families” that is no longer needed to stimulate a domestic biofuel industry. The use of ethanol is already required by federal energy standards. That would not change by eliminating the subsidy.

“We simply cannot afford to pay the oil industry for following the law,” said Sen. Susan Collins.

This was an opportunity for both parties to show that they are serious when they say they want to address the level of federal debt, and neither distinguished itself.

Democrats who are fighting to avoid cuts to social service spending should have to explain why they could not live with this cut, which would not have affected a single needy person.

Republicans who say they are anxious to slice into government spending and reduce the accumulation of debt should have to explain why this was not a good place to start.

Both sides said they had good reasons to vote against the bill, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Democrats said they objected to the way the bill, put forward by Sen. Tom Coburn, D-Okla., came to the floor and voted against it for procedural reasons.

Some Republicans took the extreme ideological position that ending a subsidy was the same as raising a tax and would be a violation of the “no new taxes” pledge most Republican candidates signed before they were elected.

If they stick to this position, it leaves no flexibility for any federal tax reform that seeks to close loopholes and broaden the tax base, which is what most Americans say they want.

But in the end, it was parochialism more than ideology that doomed the bill, and it is something that ethanol opponents like Snowe and Collins will have to overcome if the ethanol subsidies are to expire by the end of the year, as they are supposed to under law.

Ending these and some other energy subsidies is said to be part of the ongoing budget talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.

The same lobbyists who were able to kill Coburn’s bill this week will be pushing against that deal and are expected to try to extend ethanol subsidies into future budgets. They will be able to able to draw on formidable resources and make arguments about energy independence and cleaner burning vehicles.

But this is not about green energy as much as it is about enriching a handful of politically powerful businesses at the public’s expense. Corn-based ethanol should be allowed to succeed or fail on its own.

The industry does not need further handouts from taxpayers or consumers.The subsidies are wasteful, unnecessary and force the price of food to increase, but they benefit a small but politically powerful group of agribusiness and energy interests. Almost all Democrats and farm state Republicans sided with the special interests and came together to kill the bill, which fell 20 votes short of the 60 needed to move past a procedural hurdle.