Senate Republicans pressed the chamber’s Democratic majority Monday to drop its opposition to more offshore oil drilling as the average price of gasoline hit a new high of nearly $4.11 per gallon.
“The American people are saying loud and clear - there is no ambiguity about it - they want us to do something [about gas prices] and they understand the law of supply and demand,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
Democrats did not budge, saying oil companies currently sit on unused oil-drilling leases for 68 million acres of federal lands and that they forgo tax breaks to develop alternative energy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, instead touted bipartisan proposals aimed at reining in speculators in the oil futures market. Speculators have been blamed for creating artificially high prices.
“Even if the Republican proposal were enacted, it would take years - even decades - to conduct exploration and begin drilling,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor. “And even then, the Republican plan wouldn’t lower gas prices.”
The energy debate overshadowed other business facing the chamber, including a $300 billion bill to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, a Medicare bill to reverse a planned 10.6 percent cut in payments to doctors and an update of rules for government electronic eavesdropping on foreign terrorism suspects.
Mr. Reid accused Republicans of blocking the housing and Medicare bills and of stalling Democratic tax breaks for developing clean alternative fuels.
“As the American people endure sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make ends meet and provide for their families, they deserve to know that their Congress is working hard to help,” he said. “Instead, they are seeing Senate Republican leaders simply refusing to work with Democrats on legislation essential to our country in this economic recession.”
Both sides said mounting pressure from voters would work in their favor.
Mr. McConnell, speaking to reporters in his Capitol office, cited a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that showed 45 percent of liberal voters say expanded energy exploration is the top priority, up from 22 percent with that view in February.
“I can’t imagine that the majority is going to ignore that indefinitely,” he said.
He said he was courting Democratic support for a bill that would give states the option to approve offshore oil drilling and lift the moratorium on oil-shale projects, which could produce as much as 800 billion barrels of oil in the U.S.
The Republican bill also would provide incentives for developing battery-powered cars and crack down on speculation in the oil futures market.
The measure, titled the Gas Price Reduction Act, is co-sponsored by 44 of the chamber’s 49 Republicans but has no Democratic sponsors.
“The process of reaching out has begun,” Mr. McConnell said. “I wouldn’t say we have any on board.”