Agreement on Drilling Doesn't Yet Mean Action

By Ben Pershing Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Republicans are in their third week of House floor protests on the energy issue, and the political terrain appears to have shifted significantly since they launched their efforts Aug. 1.

When the GOP started using the floor of the House, which is in recess, to demand votes on opening new terrestrial and offshore land for oil and gas exploration, Democrats appeared firm in their insistence that such a vote would not happen. That resistance has gradually melted away in recent days, as the top leaders in both chambers signaled a conditional willingness to allow a vote on drilling after Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) made a similar concession earlier this month.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a conference call that an energy plan proposed by the "Gang of 10" -- a bipartisan group of senators seeking compromise on the issue -- was "a step in the right direction," indicating that some version of the plan could come up for a vote in September. The group's proposal includes allowing more drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

On Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved the ball a bit further during her delivery of the Democrats' weekly radio address. In it, she said the party's still-in-the-works energy plan "will consider opening portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling, with appropriate safeguards, and without taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil."

More offshore drilling wouldn't be the only element of Democrats' energy package. They also would release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, push for more drilling on land that already has been leased, call for oil companies to pay disputed royalties on past leases and production, repeal their tax breaks, and encourage increased use of natural gas, among other proposals.

That is a list of initiatives the majority has tried to push through before, with some kind of offshore drilling provision tacked on to the measure or at least allowed as an amendment on the floor.

Predictably, Republicans were less than enthusiastic in their response. "While the Speaker now claims to embrace a comprehensive energy plan that includes more conservation, more innovation, and more American energy production, the fact is her new effort appears to be just another flawed plan that will do little to lower gas prices," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Democrats are unlikely to admit that the GOP's floor show has pushed them into changing their tune on energy, but there has been considerable publicity surrounding the minority's demonstration. More importantly, the oil drilling debate has come to dominate the campaign trail.

The energy issue is at or near the top of the agenda in competitive contests across the country. Many Republican candidates have taken to focusing on energy at the expense of nearly every other issue. And polls continue to show solid majorities of the public favoring more offshore drilling.

Moderate and conservative Democratic incumbents have been pushing their leaders for weeks to allow a vote on drilling. Pelosi, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the country, is a strong ally of environmentalists but has felt pressure to help her party's most vulnerable members.

Democrats will use the comprehensive plan Pelosi discussed Saturday as a defense against charges that they won't allow a vote on drilling. But the measure may contain enough unpalatable items for the GOP -- particularly on taxes -- that most members of the minority will vote against it, and Senate Republicans could decide to block it altogether.

So it still appears unlikely that the House and Senate will be able to agree on an energy package that would pass with bipartisan support and be signed by President Bush. Democratic leaders may prefer to wait until next year, when they expect to have bigger majorities on the Hill and, they hope, Obama in the White House.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company