Face-off ahead on offshore drilling ban

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

Mary Knox Merrill/The Chrsitian Science Monitor
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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