Washington – The lights are dim, the mikes are off, and the television cameras dark in the US House of Representatives. But minority Republicans – sensing traction with voters on the issue of offshore drilling – aren't giving up the floor.
Nearly 90 GOP lawmakers, about 40 percent of the Republican caucus, have come back to Washington since the House voted to adjourn on Aug. 1 to protest Speaker Nancy Pelosi's refusal to allow a vote to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling.
"The American people deserve more access to American oil, and Congress should be in session until we vote," said Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, speaking to a chamber half-filled with tourists, escorted by GOP lawmakers to break off their tours of the Capitol and take a seat on the floor. He urged the tourists, many of whom seemed astonished to find themselves on the floor of the US House of Representatives, to "call to a Democratic member of Congress from your state" to demand a vote.
While tourist power may not be enough to move to a vote, Republican lawmakers say that voter power is — and that polls show that public opinion has shifted decisively their way.
"The public has clearly changed its mind about drilling," says Peter Brown, assistant director at Quinnipiac's Polling Institute, citing a recent poll.
A majority used to think it was not worth any potential environmental risks. The opinion seems to have changed that the nation needs to do everything, including drilling, he added.
"In a year when the playing field is stacked enormously in favor of the Democrats and Obama, this is an issue that seems to help Republicans and they're trying to make the most of it," he added. "Republicans are trying to keep the issue alive because it works for them, and the data suggests that the issue is working."
Last month, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said that he now favors offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive solution. On Monday night, Speaker Pelosi said in a television interview on CNN's Larry King Live that Republicans "have this thing that says drill offshore in the protected areas. We can do that. We can have a vote on that."
In response, environmental groups are stepping up grass-roots and advertising campaigns to derail moves to lift a congressional ban on offshore drilling when Congress returns in September. Recent full-page ads in The Washington Post by the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund urge supporters to "stop the giveaway of our coasts." With just 3 percent of the world's oil reserves, the US doesn't have enough oil to "drill our way to lower prices at the pump."
"There's clearly a lot at play right now, and it's hard to predict what votes we actually may see in the fall, but what we're focused on in August is having our folks in districts talking to their members of Congress about why drilling is not a useful enterprise," says David Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.
When voters are given a choice of plans to lower energy costs, 83 percent of Americans opt to "end America's addiction to oil" and to invest in wind, solar, and the next generation of biofuel technology.
That's 20 percent more than support increased offshore drilling, Mr. Willett says, citing a poll released this week by the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. The July 24-29 poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
"People are so scared right now that they're not really seeing a choice. They want to do anything that might have an impact on gas prices," says Tim Greeff, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters.
Meanwhile, bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate are moving forward on drafting legislative language for bills offering a comprehensive solution to high energy costs, including a partial lifting of a ban on offshore drilling.
The so-called Gang of 10 senators unveiled a plan on Aug. 1 to develop comprehensive energy legislation. At the heart of the plan is a $20 billion "Apollo Project-like effort" to transition 85 percent of America's new motor vehicles to non-petroleum-based fuels within 20 years.
The plan also proposes extending renewable energy, carbon mitigation, and energy conservation incentives through 2012, currently held hostage in a partisan stalemate over offshore drilling.
The most controversial element of the plan involves opening new areas for exploration and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. The plan retains an environmental buffer zone extending 50 miles offshore where new oil production will not be allowed and requires all new production to be used domestically.
"Congress needs to take immediate action. This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, it is an issue that affects all of us," said the bipartisan coalition in a joint statement on Aug. 1. The group is led by Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Carolina and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia.