The Senate Republicans who are trying to force Congress to lift restrictions on offshore drilling say they have 38 senators backing their efforts to force a showdown over the critical campaign issue of energy prices — one that could shut down the government.
Democratic leaders in Congress want to extend the moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling, which is due to expire Oct. 1, and the most likely route would be to attach the proposal to a catchall spending bill needed to keep the federal government running.
But at least 38 Republicans have signed a letter pledging to “actively oppose” that extension.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, began circulating the letter to his colleagues after the Senate adjourned for its summer recess Aug. 2 and said he expects more of them to endorse his proposal before Congress returns in early September.
“There’s been a great response already [to the letter], but frankly, every senator should sign on because it’s irrational to say ‘no’ to proven American energy during this [energy] crisis,” Mr. DeMint said.
Congress has not passed any of the annual spending bills needed to keep the government running into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Democrats appear poised to pass a resolution continuing funding at current levels until after the November elections, and are expected to try to add an amendment to extend the moratorium.
Republicans could block the legislation by rallying 41 senators to join a filibuster, but some hesitate to threaten a government shutdown during an election year.
“You’re going to see a lot of people talk about the possibility of a shutdown, but as to how far it goes it depends a lot on things you can’t predict right now,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.
A similar ploy backfired in 1995 when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, led a government shutdown in a budget showdown with President Clinton. Republicans took the bulk of the public blame for the impasse after a threatened delay of Social Security and Medicare checks.
“It’s pretty clear and explicit that they haven’t gotten to the end of the game here, that they’re not saying if [the drilling ban extension] is in the [budget resolution] that they’re going to shut down the government,” another senior Republican Senate aide said.
Public opinion polls showing that most Americans support increased offshore drilling have emboldened Republicans to challenge Democrats on the issue. The polls suggest Democrats, not Republicans, would be blamed for the consequences of a government shutdown.
“Republicans don’t want to shut the government down; they want to open up American energy so we can lower the price of gas at the pump,” said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton.
The drilling moratorium prohibits oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf - three miles to 200 miles offshore - and expanded oil shale mining in the West. The moratorium was first enacted in 1982 and has been renewed every year since.
Democrats say it would take more than 10 years for increased drilling to have an impact at the pump, and that the extra supply would lower gas prices by only 2 cents per gallon. They add that oil companies have access to millions of available drilling acres on land and off shore that they’re not using.