Senate Sends Huge Interim Spending Bill to President

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008; 12:16 AM

Dealing a final blow to a decades-old ban on offshore drilling, the Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a massive spending bill to fund the federal government into next spring and provide more than $30 billion for disaster relief and other domestic programs, without placing limits on oil production.

After a summer-long battle over domestic oil production, congressional Democrats retreated from their opposition to drilling on the outer continental shelf and in the oil shale in the Rocky Mountain West, allowing a legislative ban on production to expire at midnight Tuesday. Although it will be years before rigs could start drilling as close as three miles offshore, Republicans hailed it as a landmark decision by Democrats that will lead to more independence from oil produced overseas and the instability that pushed a gallon of gasoline over $4.

"Not only is Congress tackling the problem of rising energy prices head-on by encouraging domestic energy development, we are doing so by working together across party lines," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Democrats said they are holding out hope that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will win the presidency and will work with what is likely to be a more hefty Democratic majority in the House and Senate to put together a compromise next year.

"We've got plenty of time to work through that," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who added that it will take at least two years for drilling contracts to be completed.

In addition to excluding the drilling ban, the catchall spending bill includes more than $600 billion to fund the departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and Defense through fiscal 2009. But it does not include spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The bill includes funding authority to keep the rest of the government open into early March, the deadline for when Congress and the next president must deal with leftover spending issues.

Congress could not pass one of the 12 annual bills funding the federal agencies in regular order this year, so the legislation rolled three of the appropriations into one package along with the partial funding for other agencies, as well as relief for victims of hurricanes Ike and Gustav and other disasters. The legislation also includes $5 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, doubling the funds from last year.

The resolution also includes more than $7 billion in direct spending that will support $25 billion in guaranteed loans for the auto industry, helping fund the transition to building more hybrid cars.

The Senate approved the measure 78 to 12, with 11 Republicans and one Democrat voting no. Their opposition was based largely on the spending total. The bill included more than 2,300 narrowly crafted spending provisions, known as earmarks. The provisions are worth more than $6.6 billion, and most had never been aired publicly until the middle of last week, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The House passed the funding resolution last week, and President Bush has said he will sign the legislation. Bush hailed the lifting of the drilling ban.

"One benefit of this broken (appropriations) process is the agreement to discontinue the moratoria on exploration and drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf and allowing access to western oil shale reserves. Ending these moratoria puts the United States one step closer to ending our dependence on foreign sources of energy," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement.

Throughout the summer, Democrats continued their support for the drilling moratorium, which dates to the early 1980s, as Bush and Republicans demanded more domestic oil production in exchange for increased funding for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

After adjourning for a five-week recess in August, House Republicans refused to yield the floor. With the lights out and the microphones turned off, they held daily protests in the chamber calling for votes on drilling legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered an alternative that would have allowed drilling as close as 50 miles offshore if states approved it, but Republicans argued that the plan left the most potent reserves off-limits. That legislation passed the House but was never considered in the Senate.

Rather than putting her preferred compromise, which Bush opposed, into the massive spending bill, Pelosi agreed to let the ban expire in the hope of dealing with the issue again next year.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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