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Face-off ahead on offshore drilling ban

It tops Congress’s agenda, now colored by lawmakers’ preelection calculus.

By Staff writer / September 8, 2008

Thrill to drill: Delegates at last week’s Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., proclaimed their support for more offshore oil drilling. The issue is likely to arise in Congress as soon as next week.

Mary Knox Merrill/The Chrsitian Science Monitor

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Washington, DC

In a sprint toward November elections, Congress is planning votes on hot-button issues from energy and the economy to equal pay for women, but with slim prospect that any of them will become law.

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In election season, every vote is grist for a 30-second campaign ad, and the last weeks before the October recess are shaping up as a marathon for symbolic votes.

At the same time, the spending bills to fund the 2009 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, are unfinished or barely started. Even a resolution to continue government funding into a new administration is expected to be a highly charged vote, because it is the probable vehicle for extending a ban on offshore drilling, now set to expire on Sept. 30.

“It’s almost impossible to separate any vote or debate in Congress now from the election,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“For a legislator to go to Capitol Hill and try to remove the sounds and sights of Denver and Minneapolis is impossible,” adds, referring to the parties’ national conventions in those host cities. “All of the votes are calculated in terms of how they will affect Barack Obama, John McCain, and the congressional races.”

A vote could come as early as this week over whether to lift a ban on oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. The ban has been renewed every year since 1981 as part of the annual appropriations process. During the August recess, Republicans held 25 protests on a darkened House floor to urge Democrats to call the House back into session for an up-or-down vote on an energy bill, including a vote on more access to offshore-energy reserves.

“This is not the end of the gas price protest. This is the beginning,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana during Friday’s protest.

Aware of recent polls showing that 7 in 10 Americans now favor lifting the ban, Democrats are crafting compromise energy legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a shift, on Aug. 18 promised a vote on offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive energy plan. Previously, she had characterized GOP claims that offshore drilling could reduce energy prices as “a hoax.”

“We are trying to do the right thing here: to get a bill that will end our dependence on foreign oil,” says Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. The legislation, still being drafted, would remove some $18 billion in existing subsidies to oil companies and increase tax incentives for renewable fuels.

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