- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Congress returned to work Monday to the same gridlock over energy and oil drilling it faced before adjourning for summer break in early August, despite a softening by House Democratic leaders to include some expanded drilling.

Democrats “promised a ‘common sense plan’ to bring down gas prices, but gas prices have soared and we have yet to see the plan - if it exists,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Monday. “They refuse to allow a vote on the ‘all of the above’ energy plan supported by a bipartisan majority in the House and around the country.”

House Republicans - upset that Democratic leaders adjourned for its 5-week summer recess without holding a vote to expand drilling - staged daily protest speeches on the House floor during the break to demand that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, call the House back into session to work on an energy plan.

Mrs. Pelosi last month said she will introduce energy legislation in the coming weeks that might include opening portions of the outer continental shelf for drilling - a provision Democratic leaders previously had opposed. The measure also would include a “use it or lose it” provision that would force oil companies to surrender oil and gas leases on federal land they’re not drilling on, and prohibit these companies from acquiring new leases.

House Democrats are “crafting a comprehensive energy strategy that will provide relief for consumers, end our dependence on foreign oil, create millions of jobs and grow our economy,” said Mrs. Pelosi last week.

But Democratic leaders in both chambers remain steadfast in their opposition for a stand-alone, “up or down” vote on new drilling, and have refused Republican demands to lift an offshore drilling moratorium that been renewed every year since 1982.

Democratic leaders in Congress want to extend the moratorium, which is due to expire Oct. 1, and the most likely route would be to attach the proposal to a catch-all spending bill needed to keep the federal government running.

But 39 Republicans - led by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina - have signed a letter pledging to “actively oppose” that extension. If the budget resolution fails, many agencies and departments would be denied money to operate and would be forced to close.

“We can’t hope our way out of the energy crisis, we need real solutions right now, and the first step is allowing the bans on American oil and gas to expire,” said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton. “It’s simply not possible in the near-term for alternatives like wind and solar to produce vast amounts of energy needed to fuel our economy.”

Republicans could block the legislation by rallying 41 senators to join a filibuster, although some Senate Republican aides have said senators may hesitate to threaten a government shutdown during an election year.

“Let’s be clear: shutting down the government means that senior citizens stop receiving checks and veterans stop receiving health care,” Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Monday. “We must not let that happen, and I hope Republicans will work with us on a reasonable process to avoid it.”

Republicans have a fresh national pro-drilling advocate in Republican vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose speech during the National Republican Convention last week in St. Paul, Minn., was met with chants from the crowd of “drill, baby, drill.”

“I think Palin changed the calculus,” said a senior Senate Republican aide. “The polls show that energy [issues] are making a huge dent in [Democratic] numbers, and in statewide races, not just the presidential race. That’s what’s going to affect action on the [Senate] floor more than anything else.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of at least 16 senators last month also announced a sweeping compromise energy proposal that included provisions for lifting drilling bans in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast, and in the South Atlantic off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.

And Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both houses also are scheduled to meet Friday for an “energy summit,” although the effort isn’t expected to generate immediate energy legislation that would reduce the price of gasoline at the pump, aides said.