- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Congress spun toward an impasse on energy legislation Tuesday as Republicans and Democrats talked past each other about how to cure America’s gas-price woes.

Republicans are pushing for legislation to increase domestic oil production, which includes expanding offshore drilling, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, and lifting a moratorium on oil-shale production.

But Democrats have remained steadfast in their opposition to opening up new areas for drilling, saying that oil companies already hold leases on 68 million acres in the West and western Gulf of Mexico that they’re not utilizing.

“Without something close to a removal of all the offshore [drilling] restraints, I don’t see how we can make a deal,” said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican. “But I’ve been part of situations that were far more stuck in the mud and come out to find a way.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Republicans were looking for an excuse to halt energy legislation.

“They think they have a winning hand by dragging this out … to October,” the Illinois Democrat said.

The Senate on Tuesday voted to move ahead with a Democratic plan to curb speculation in oil markets that has been blamed by some for the recent skyrocketing oil prices. The measure would require the government to set limits on trading in oil markets by investors and speculators.

But despite the 94-0 vote, which clears a procedural hurdle and sets up a possible final vote later this week, the bill has stalled over a dispute on how many amendments to allow. Republicans have proposed at least 28 amendments, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is insisting on only one for each party.

The Republican amendment would provide more offshore oil drilling and Western mining of oil shale. The Democratic alternative plan would accelerate leasing for oil exploration in areas of the Gulf of Mexico and offshore in Alaska that are already open to drilling. It would also mandate conservation measures such as green building codes and research for battery-powered cars.

Mr. Reid says it’s necessary to limit the number of amendments so as to proceed with the bill quickly before the start of Congress’ monthlong August recess.

But Republicans said Mr. Reid’s two-amendment ultimatum threatened to derail the bill, an outcome the minority might prefer to passing what they consider a flawed bill.

“I think [Democrats] want to try to ram this down our throats, but as it stands now, it’s a standoff,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican. “I think somebody is going to have to blink here.”

Meanwhile in the House, Republican leaders have proposed an “all of the above” energy plan that includes drilling offshore and in ANWR, while also increasing development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and biomass fuels.

“Republicans are committed to helping struggling families and small businesses, and we’re going to use every option at our disposal to make sure that we get a vote on producing more American-made energy,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who last week toured ANWR with 10 House Republican colleagues.

Outside the clash of Democrat and Republican leaders, a bipartisan group in both chambers is working on energy bills that would lift the moratorium on offshore drilling and pump money into developing renewable energy sources.

Democrat Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Republican Rep. John E. Peterson of Pennsylvania are spearheading a plan that would let states decide whether to drill off their shores and funnel leasing revenue into conservation and renewable energy programs.

And a bipartisan “Gang of 10” in the Senate, led by Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, is working to forge consensus on limited areas to lift the drilling ban, such as in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Reid, who said the efforts outside the leadership circle to tackle the energy issue “doesn’t bother me at all,” showed no sign of budging.

“We are of one mind,” Mr. Reid said of his party. “We know what we want to do. We want to have a vote on speculation. [And] we want to allow them to have a vote on what they’ve said is their No. 1 issue.”

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