Democratic leaders slammed Republicans on Monday for threatening to force a government shutdown this fall unless Congress lifts the ban on offshore oil drilling and for simultaneously demanding lawmakers return from the August recess to vote on more drilling.
”This is a last gasp of a party without ideas, hamstrung by a politically weakened president and fully understanding that they are going to lose a significant number of seats in November,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
He said Republicans should have learned that government shutdowns don’t work in 1995, when voters mostly blamed the then-Republican-led Congress for the budget standoff with President Clinton that brought the federal government to a virtual standstill.
Some Republicans nevertheless say they are prepared to vote against a resolution to fund the federal government for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. If the resolution fails, many agencies and departments would run out of money and close their doors.
“We don’t want the government shutdown to be an issue, but the fact is the Democrats are so overconfident that they’re willing talk about [extending the] ban, and they’re willing to talk about raising taxes on gasoline,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, who is circulating a letter encouraging colleagues to demand a vote to lift the drilling ban.
The conflict stems from 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 Alaska and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Democrats oppose the idea, saying oil companies already have millions of available drilling acres on land they’re not using.
About 24 Republicans also protested on the closed-for-business House floor Monday, calling for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reconvene the chamber from the August recess to take up energy legislation, including measures for more offshore drilling.
Republicans have seized on the drilling issue, which the Democratic environmentalist base opposes, but which enjoys support of about two-thirds of voters, polls show.
“I really sense that we are at a tipping point in our country on this issue,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican. “You sense the change that is happening in the debate.”
He noted likely Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois on Monday said that he is now willing to consider more offshore oil drilling - a measure he previously opposed - as part of a comprehensive energy plan.
“We welcome him to see the light on this,” Mr. Pence said.
But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said the minority party was resorting to political “stunts” to grandstand on the energy issue.
“A smattering of House Republicans are engaging in stunts on the House floor in a transparent political effort to manufacture headlines,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Meanwhile, most of their Republican colleagues returned home burdened with trying to explain why they blocked efforts to combat high gas prices.”
He criticized Republicans for voting against several energy measures, including expanded drilling in Alaska, renewable energy research, repealing subsidies for oil companies and cracking down on speculation in energy markets.
“For six years, Republicans controlled every branch of government and did nothing while America became more dependent on foreign sources of oil,” Mr. Hoyer said. “House Republicans now want to dust off old proposals, rejected by Congress on a bipartisan basis as bad ideas, and claim they have put forward ‘solutions.’ ”
Republicans say they opposed the measures to protest Democratic leaders in both chambers refusing to allow a stand-alone bill on drilling.
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 - from three miles to 200 miles offshore - and expanded oil-shale development in the West.
An executive moratorium on offshore drilling was lifted last month by President Bush. That ban was put in place by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and sustained by President Clinton.
The congressional 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 past Oct. 1.