As gas prices nationally approach $4 a gallon, the House passed Thursday a measure that would require the Interior Department to conduct four offshore oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia.

The bill, H.R. 1230, passed on a 266-to-149 vote, with 33 Democrats joining all but two Republicans present in voting yes.

Republicans have cast the measure as a step toward easing the country’s rising gas prices by speeding up oil and gas exploration in the gulf. The administration, Republicans have argued, has not acted quickly enough to approve lease sales after last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, which killed 11 people and leaked an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf.

Democrats have countered that the Republican measure would endanger the gulf and would have little impact on current gas prices. They argue instead that Republicans should instead focus their energies on eliminating subsidies for big oil companies.

In an attempt to turn up heat on Republicans over the subsidy issue, House Democrats forced a vote Thursday on a measure that would have ended billions of dollars in tax credits to the top five oil companies. Republicans rejected the measure. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar measure in the coming weeks.

Prices at the pump have been soaring, although a potential sign of relief came Thursday when crude oil prices plunged nearly 9 percent, dropping to below $100 a barrel.

The Obama administration has defended its policies on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, noting that 12 deepwater wells have been permitted since the end of February. The White House has also contended that the Interior Department plans to conduct the three Gulf lease sales mentioned in the bill by the middle of 2012.

The White House opposed the House measure in a statement Thursday, but stopped short of a veto threat.

“H.R. 1230 would undermine the Administration’s work to ensure that environmental analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is conducted in a rigorous manner,” the White House said. “H.R. 1230 would hastily open areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic to leasing, including requiring the Department of the Interior (DOI) to hold three lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico using outdated NEPA analysis that was conducted before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

The House is also slated to vote next week on another drilling-related measure, H.R. 1229. The bill would give the Interior Department a 30-day deadline by which to decide on drilling applications in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Obama administration has also said it opposes that measure, arguing that it “would constrain the ability of DOI to ensure that permits meet safety standards by requiring permitting decisions to be made within 30 days of receiving an application — thereby curtailing the review period.” The White House has not issued a veto threat on that bill, either.