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On Capitol Hill, Democrats Push Back On Offshore Drilling

On Capitol Hill, Democrats Push Back On Offshore Drilling
With Bush urging new oil exploration in coastal waters, top lawmakers respond with calls to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.


President Bush and Congress traded accusations Tuesday over who’s more to blame for America’s latest oil crisis and offered different assessments of the need to lift a long-standing moratorium on new offshore oil drilling.

Despite the apparent rancor over the issue – some of it no doubt attributable to partisan branding efforts ahead of the fall elections – there are signs that some lawmakers are trying to reach across party lines to find common ground on what to do about soaring prices.

For the second time in as many days, the president Tuesday called on Congress to “clear the way for offshore exploration on the outer continental shelf,” which has been restricted since Mr. Bush’s father sat in the Oval Office. On Monday, the White House lifted an executive prohibition on offshore exploration, but leasing of offshore tracts cannot go forward unless Congress decides to lift its drilling ban, too.

“This means that the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the US Congress,” Bush said during a news conference.

In response, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate renewed calls for the president to start releasing oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve and to back pending legislation to curb speculation in the oil futures market.

“For eight years, he’s done nothing,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid after a caucus luncheon on Tuesday. “We had to pass a law to stop him from pumping more oil into the SPR, which is 98 percent full.” Rather than open offshore areas for drilling, Bush should “tell oil companies to drill in the 6.8 million acres they already have [leased],” he said.

Moreover, any oil produced offshore should be reserved for Americans, he added. “It becomes American oil.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Bush to immediately release “a small amount of oil” from the SPR to reduce prices for American consumers. “Whether the president knows it or not, there is an emergency in our country,” she said at a news conference with energy experts Tuesday.

The real need isn’t for more drilling, which won’t produce relief at the pump for years, Speaker Pelosi said. Instead, she announced that House Democrats will propose a second stimulus package to help offset rising prices in gasoline, food, fuel, healthcare, and education.

But congressional Democrats probably have an uphill battle in their bid to reshape the debate, if opinion polls are any indication. Almost three-quarters of American adults strongly or mildly favored increased drilling for oil and natural gas in offshore water, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted June 26-29.

Republicans in the House and Senate want an immediate vote to put lawmakers on record about whether to relax restrictions on energy exploration offshore and on US public lands.

“If the speaker is serious about taking action to stimulate the economy, she should start by allowing a vote on increased American energy production,” Rep. John Boehner, House Republican leader, said in a statement on Tuesday.

A new bipartisan working group – the Gang of 10 – aims to build on the success of a previous group, the so-called Gang of 14, which broke a previous Senate gridlock over judicial nominations.

The group, organized by Sens. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota and Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, is looking for consensus on which restricted areas could win a majority of Senate votes for lifting a ban on exploration, focusing especially on easing restrictions in the Gulf of Mexico.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, count 10 Democrats willing to consider opening up restricted areas to more exploration.

“As of today, 10 Democrats have expressed some level of willingness to explore offshore. They’re acknowledging a groundswell of public opinion – even among self-described liberals – in favor of more domestic supply,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

The Senate Energy Committee is inviting all 100 senators to a Thursday workshop on transportation and heating-fuel costs.

“I intend for the workshop to focus our attention not only on the challenges inherent in high oil prices, but also on developing a common path forward that we can come together to support,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, who chairs the panel.

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