By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
TITUSVILLE, Fla., Aug. 2 -- Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday said a shift in his stance on offshore oil drilling is a necessary compromise with Republicans to gain their support for his broader goals of energy independence.
On Friday, Obama indicated a willingness to support an effort by five Democratic senators and five Republicans to break Congress's energy impasse with legislation that would allow expanded offshore oil exploration and embrace ambitious energy efficiency and efforts to develop alternative fuels.
Republicans have seized on the drilling issue, hoping to finally get political traction amid soaring gasoline prices. Democratic leaders have done everything possible to stand in their way.
Obama said on Saturday that it is time to compromise. The proposal by the Senate's "Gang of 10" has "some of the very aggressive elements that I've outlined in my plan," he said here, including a goal in 20 years of having 85 percent of cars no longer operating on petroleum-based fuels and to provide $7 billion to help the U.S. auto industry retool to build ultra-efficient vehicles.
"What I don't want is for the best to be the enemy of the good here, and if we can come up with a genuine, bipartisan compromise in which I have to accept some things I don't like, or the Democrats have to accept some things that they don't like, in exchange for moving us in the direction of energy independence, then that's something I'm open to," Obama said. "I wanted to send a strong signal that we can't allow partisan bickering or the desire to score political points to get in the way of providing some genuine relief to people who are struggling."
Republicans seized on Obama's shift, accusing the presumptive Democratic nominee of inconstant and politically motivated policy stands. The Republican National Committee sent out a news release noting that on Wednesday in Missouri, Obama declared, "I want to be absolutely clear to everybody about this. If I thought that I could provide you some immediate relief on gas prices by drilling off the shores of California and New Jersey . . . if I thought that by drilling offshore, we could solve our problem, I'd do it."
Since securing the Democratic nomination in June, Obama has taken a series of steps toward the political center, embracing a bipartisan compromise on warrantless wiretapping, accepting a Supreme Court decision against a District handgun ban, decrying another decision banning the death penalty for child rapists and hinting at limits to late-term abortions for those who have diagnosed mental health problems.
The drilling issue may offer Obama the strongest reason yet for compromise. New polls suggest that opposition to offshore drilling is easing under the weight of $4-a-gallon gasoline. Obama left open his options Saturday, saying that the Senate compromise's "drilling provisions are about as careful and responsible as you might expect from a drilling agenda," but that he remains skeptical.
"We can't drill our way out of the problem," he said. But, he added, "I also recognize that in the House and the Senate, there are Republicans who have very clear ideas about what they want, and at some point people are going to have to make some decisions. Do we want to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?"
The campaign of Sen. John McCain at once claimed credit for leading Obama to his new position and questioned whether he ultimately would support additional drilling. McCain also opposed expanded offshore drilling until switching his position in June.
It is not clear how far Obama's endorsement will get the Senate compromise. Environmentalists decried the deal as badly slanted toward oil production. Daniel J. Weiss, an energy and environmental expert with the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, said most of the drilling provisions are mandatory, while the key energy conservation measures are voluntary. The push to have 85 percent of future cars powered on non-petroleum fuel is merely a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution. And the compromise does not include a long-sought environmental provision that would mandate that a certain percentage of electricity generation come from renewable energy sources.
"This deal is like swapping your home for somebody's car," Weiss said. "Sure, the car is nice, but is it worth your house?"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shut down the chamber and sent lawmakers home for a five-week August recess Friday rather than have a vote on expanded drilling. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has been slightly less ardent, and signaled on Friday that he will entertain using the Gang of 10 deal as grounds for compromise when Congress returns in September.
The Senate package would repeal tax breaks for oil companies that Democrats have opposed, fund more research into fuel efficiency, help consumers buy plug-in hybrid vehicles or convert existing hybrids to plug-ins, and extend tax breaks for renewable electricity sources for eight years. States would have the final say in approving drilling plans on the Outer Continental Shelf, no closer than 50 miles from the shore.
President Bush chastised Democrats on Saturday for refusing to allow a vote on whether to lift the federal ban on offshore oil drilling before lawmakers departed for their summer recess.
"To reduce pressure on prices, we need to increase the supply of oil, especially oil produced here at home," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Obama complained Saturday on a campaign swing through Florida that McCain's onslaught of negative attacks last week -- including an assertion that Obama had "played the race card" -- had diverted attention from issues such as the energy crisis. He conceded allegations he made that Republicans would try to "scare" voters by raising his appearance and name did allude to race, but he said it was the McCain campaign that transformed general comments about his unusual biography into a "racially incendiary remark."
"I don't think it's accurate to say my comments have nothing to do with race," he told reporters here. But, he elaborated, "Here's what I was saying, and I think it should be undisputed: I don't come out of central casting when it comes to presidential races, for a whole range of reasons. I'm young, new to the national scene. My name is Barack Obama. I'm African American. I was born in Hawaii. I spent time in Indonesia. I do not have the typical biography of a presidential candidate."
From that, he said, the McCain campaign has tried to portray him as "risky."
"In no way do I think John McCain's campaign was being racist," Obama concluded. "They're cynical. I think they want to distract people from talking about the real issues."
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds also tried to tie together the back-and-forth over race with the burning issue of energy.
"The only 'cynical' candidate in this election is Barack Obama, who has opposed every element of John McCain's comprehensive energy plan," Bounds said.