- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Senate Republicans yesterday announced a bipartisan deal to drill for oil and natural gas off the Gulf Coast, but the votes of some supporters are contingent on House leaders agreeing not to broaden the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he will bring to the floor this month a bill to open 8 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to domestic energy production while protecting the Florida shoreline and creating a buffer zone around military training areas there. The measure will allow Gulf states to share in the revenues created from capturing new oil and natural gas. Senators estimated that there is enough oil to produce more than 1 billion barrels.

Mr. Frist said the passage of the measure will make the U.S. more energy-independent and will ease pain at the pumps.

“This is a breakthrough,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, one of the Democrats supportive of drilling in the waters beyond her state and Florida.

“It is a step in the right direction — it is very promising. The devil is in the details,” countered Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat.

Mr. Nelson, who was not invited to the press conference, arrived late and squeezed through the crowd to huddle privately with Mr. Frist and then took the podium to speak to reporters.

“I don’t want this thing to go over to the House and then go into a conference and suddenly it comes out a lot different from this,” he said.

Mr. Nelson said he will support the measure only if House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert agrees it will get a vote on the House floor instead of sending the bill to a conference committee, where the details of the drilling compromise could slip through the cracks.

Mr. Frist said he is talking to Mr. Hastert, but no agreement is in place.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, berated Mr. Nelson for “all this moaning and all this crying.”

“We didn’t invite him over,” said the New Mexico Republican, 74. “If he doesn’t support it, we’re going to pass it anyway.”

A Hastert aide said the speaker is pleased with the deal and hopes to get the bill quickly to President Bush.

Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican, helped craft the compromise and agreed it should remain intact in the House, which has passed a much broader measure with less protection for the coastline.

Mr. Domenici said the measure would be the “best single energy arrangement we can make for the American people this year,” adding that he is confident there are enough votes to break a filibuster.

House members of the Florida delegation yesterday were cautious of giving outright support at this early stage.

The House-passed measure gives states 50 to 75 percent of royalties from exploration, while the Senate version gives 37.5 percent to Gulf states producing oil, 12.5 percent to a water conservation fund and 50 percent to the federal government.

The White House opposes revenue sharing.

Yesterday, several Democrats accused Republicans of giving tax breaks to Big Oil to the detriment of drivers paying high prices at the pump, and predicted the issue will pay off at the polls in November.

“They don’t have a policy on energy other than to help Big Oil,” Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said of Republicans.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said that if her party takes over after the midterm elections, the top priority will be to roll back the subsidies afforded to oil companies.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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