The showdown on Capitol Hill over expanding offshore drilling could lead to a threatened government shutdown when Congress returns from its five-week summer break in early September.
Some Republicans say they are prepared to vote against a resolution to fund the federal government for the 2009 fiscal year unless Democrats agree to lift an offshore drilling moratorium. If the budget resolution fails, many agencies and departments would be denied money to operate and would be forced to close.
"We don't want the government shutdown to be an issue, but the fact is the Democrats are so overconfident that they're willing to talk about a ban and they're willing to talk about raising taxes on gasoline, so this is just pretty incredible," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, strike the drilling moratorium from the budget resolution.
"But I think that once Americans realize that this [drilling] ban will expire unless we pass something, I think there is going to be just an outcry to not vote for anything that had a ban in it."
The congressional drilling moratorium was first enacted in 1982 and has been renewed every year since. It prohibits oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf - three miles to 200 miles offshore - and expanded oil shale development in the West. The ban is set to expire at the end of September, but Democratic leaders are expected to include a one-year extension in legislation that they will introduce next month to continue funding the government for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The impasse centers on Republican demands that any energy plan include a provision to expand domestic oil drilling to areas currently off-limits, including a wildlife reserve in northern Gulf of Mexico. Democrats oppose the idea, saying oil companies already have millions available drilling acres on land they're not using.
"If the Democrats choose to hold the continuation of government operations as a hostage, then as far as I'm concerned, I can't vote for anything that has a ban in it," Mr. DeMint said. "That would just be a betrayal of everything we're talking about as Republicans. And I think that most Republicans are going to feel that way."
Republicans say the ban needs to be lifted to lower gas prices and to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"On October 1, the bans on offshore drilling and oil shale recovery will end, enabling us to finally be able to develop more American energy - unless Democrats actively prohibit exploration," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to drop the ban.
"I hope that Speaker Pelosi and Democrats in the House and Senate recognize the pain Americans are feeling and will not actively enact legislation to block the development of American energy," he said.
Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress have refused to allow a stand-alone bill on drilling. In protest, Republicans have blocked several Democratic bills in both chambers, saying they will continue to do so unless Democrats agree to a drilling vote.
Democrats control both houses of Congress, but hold only a 51-49 vote advantage in the Senate. A budget resolution may require 60 votes for passage, meaning only 41 opposing votes would be needed to block the measure.
Such a move could be risky for Republicans. In 1995, when Medicare checks.
But with public opinion polls showing that most Americans support increased offshore drilling, Republicans are emboldened to challenge Democrats on the issue, and say that Democrats, not Republicans, would be blamed for the consequences of a government shutdown.
"As far as I'm concerned, on October 1 we should be able to begin the leasing process of drilling and mining in both of those areas of American [energy] supply," C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" show Sunday. "In this environment, where energy is the most important issue and the only thing you're fighting over is whether you allow drilling, we'll have to wait and see. [But] I'd rather be on the side that wanted to go after American energy sources than the side that didn't."