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Face-off ahead on offshore drilling ban

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

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It is also expected to introduce a renewable electricity standard for utilities, to rein in speculation in oil futures markets, and to require oil companies to use existing leases or lose them. Any lifting of a ban on offshore drilling will include restrictions to protect the environment.

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In addition to the House leaders’ bill, a bipartisan group of members led by Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii and John Peterson (R) of Pennsylvania has released its own energy plan, which would open more of the moratorium area to drilling. That bill now has 131 cosponsors, and its lead sponsors predict the final count will be closer to 200.

“It’s about America, not about party. My Republican leadership wondered what we were doing, and I said, ‘I’ll report to you when it’s done,’ ” said Representative Peterson, in a phone interview. “This was drafted without either leadership or their top staff having any input. We think we have a good bill.”

In the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid is working closely with a bipartisan group of 16 senators. Their plan proposes higher government subsidies for renewable sources and a push to convert vehicles to nonfuel sources, while also opening more acres for drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. A vote is expected next week.

If the bills fail, drilling proponents have another shot at the issue when lawmakers vote on continuing government funding into the next fiscal year, when the next Congress would finish budget appropriations. GOP leaders plan to offer amendments that would strip the drilling ban out of the resolution. Some Republicans and outside groups are urging President Bush to veto any spending resolution that renews the offshore drilling ban, even if it means shutting down the government.

In the other big initiative in the last weeks of the 110th Congress, Democrats aim to move a second stimulus plan to boost the economy. The $50 billion plan is expected to include new infrastructure projects, Medicaid funding for state governments, disaster relief for the Midwest and Gulf Coast, and home heating aid for the Northeast and upper Midwest states this winter. The White House says it will oppose the legislation, and there are not expected to be enough votes to override a veto. But the votes, whatever the outcome, are certain fodder for campaign ads.