As Congress heads into its last week before August recess and political conventions, there's one big item on the must-do list: Action to ease energy costs for American families.
With a gallon of gas hovering at $4, energy prices are the No. 1 issue on voters' minds. But congressional leaders are increasingly deadlocked over what to do. In response, frustrated rank-and-file members on both sides of the aisle are stepping up efforts to find common ground.
Last week, Republicans blocked three Democratic bills in as many days: On Thursday, the House rejected a measure that would have released about 70 million barrels of oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. On Friday, Senate Republicans blocked a move that would have led to a vote on a bill to stop excessive speculation in energy markets. On Saturday, the GOP minority again opposed taking up a $5.1 billion Senate measure to help low-income Americans pay utility bills this year.
All three measures foundered on the same issue: a congressional ban on drilling in protected offshore areas.
Republicans are eager to lift the ban and promote more drilling. It's one of only a few GOP issues that appears to be gaining widespread support among voters in an otherwise bleak campaign season. "For the first time in two years, our side thinks we're on the winning side of a major issue," says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But for Democratic leaders, the issue is politically toxic. Senate and House Democrats in hard-hit states, such as Michigan and Ohio, want to lift the ban. Those representing coastal districts generally oppose it. So does the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.
President Bush lifted an executive ban on offshore exploration on the outer continental shelf on July 14 and challenged Congress to lift its own ban. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she will not allow a floor vote on offshore drilling.
"What the president would like to do is to have validation for his failed policy. I'm saying that that's not something that will come easily to him," she said in a press briefing on Thursday. She says that the White House and oil companies must first "exhaust other remedies," including drilling onshore in the 68 million acres already open to exploration and drilling.
On the Senate side, majority leader Harry Reid has talked about offering Republicans a floor vote on the issue, but he blocked amendments on the "Stop Excessive Energy Speculation" bill, including a proposal to lift the ban on offshore drilling. "Republicans once again have run away from an opportunity to provide a short-term solution to our energy crisis," he said after the vote.
Republicans say that all three votes opposing energy legislation aim to force Democrats to take up the issue of offshore drilling. "Almost every Republican just voted to stay on this subject, to continue our energy debate into next week," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell after Friday's vote.
The issue also plays into the presidential campaign. On Saturday, Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, renewed calls on Democrats to lift the ban. "The Congress now has the sole power to lift the ban, but so far they can't be bothered to get around to it," he said in a radio address.
Senator Obama opposes offshore drilling in protected areas. Lifting the congressional ban would "merely prolong the failed energy policies we have seen from Washington for 30 years," he said in a statement after Mr. Bush's July 14 order lifting of the executive ban.
Republicans say that a Senate vote on the issue would expose the Democrats' divisions and embarrass Obama. "Senator Reid can't allow a vote that will put Senator Obama in a tough spot," says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senator McConnell.
With leaders on both sides of the aisle digging in for a long siege, other lawmakers are reaching across party lines for a fix.
Next Tuesday, a bipartisan working group plans to release a final draft of a comprehensive energy plan that includes the lifting of the ban. The plan locks in 40 percent of royalties from new leases on the outer continental shelf for conservation, research on renewable energy, environmental cleanup, and funding for low-income energy assistance, says David Helfert, a spokesman for Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii, a cofounder of the working group with Rep. John Peterson (R) of Pennsylvania.