The Senate Republicans who are trying to force Congress to lift restrictions on offshore drilling say they have 38 senators backing their efforts to force a showdown over the critical campaign issue of energy prices — one that could shut down the government.
Democratic leaders in Congress want to extend the moratorium on new offshore oil and gas drilling, which is due to expire Oct. 1, and the most likely route would be to attach the proposal to a catchall spending bill needed to keep the federal government running.
But at least 38 Republicans have signed a letter pledging to “actively oppose” that extension.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, began circulating the letter to his colleagues after the Senate adjourned for its summer recess Aug. 2 and said he expects more of them to endorse his proposal before Congress returns in early September.
“There’s been a great response already [to the letter], but frankly, every senator should sign on because it’s irrational to say ‘no’ to proven American energy during this [energy] crisis,” Mr. DeMint said.
Congress has not passed any of the annual spending bills needed to keep the government running into the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Democrats appear poised to pass a resolution continuing funding at current levels until after the November elections, and are expected to try to add an amendment to extend the moratorium.
Republicans could block the legislation by rallying 41 senators to join a filibuster, but some hesitate to threaten a government shutdown during an election year.
“You’re going to see a lot of people talk about the possibility of a shutdown, but as to how far it goes it depends a lot on things you can’t predict right now,” a senior Republican Senate aide said.
A similar ploy backfired in 1995 when House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, led a government shutdown in a budget showdown with President Clinton. Republicans took the bulk of the public blame for the impasse after a threatened delay of Social Security and Medicare checks.
“It’s pretty clear and explicit that they haven’t gotten to the end of the game here, that they’re not saying if [the drilling ban extension] is in the [budget resolution] that they’re going to shut down the government,” another senior Republican Senate aide said.
Public opinion polls showing that most Americans support increased offshore drilling have emboldened Republicans to challenge Democrats on the issue. The polls suggest Democrats, not Republicans, would be blamed for the consequences of a government shutdown.
“Republicans don’t want to shut the government down; they want to open up American energy so we can lower the price of gas at the pump,” said DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton.
The drilling moratorium prohibits oil and gas leasing on most of the outer continental shelf - three miles to 200 miles offshore - and expanded oil shale mining in the West. The moratorium was first enacted in 1982 and has been renewed every year since.
Democrats say it would take more than 10 years for increased drilling to have an impact at the pump, and that the extra supply would lower gas prices by only 2 cents per gallon. They add that oil companies have access to millions of available drilling acres on land and off shore that they’re not using.
“If [Republicans] want to threaten to shut down the government in order to push policies such as offshore drilling that won’t help until the year 2030, then they should go right ahead,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “The entire Republican Party will pay a terrible price in [the elections in] November for such a silly and desperate stunt.”
Democratic leaders in both houses have refused to allow a stand-alone bill on lifting the moratorium, but have softened their position as public support for expanded drilling increases and as the issue gains traction with voters.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Saturday that House Democrats intend to push energy legislation that would include opening portions of the outer continental shelf for drilling.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, responded by reiterating that if congressional Democrats were serious about the issue “they would call Congress back into session immediately.”
Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, changed his position this month, saying he would accept limited additional offshore oil drilling if it is needed to enact a comprehensive energy policy that includes measures to foster fuel-efficient automobiles and develop alternate energy sources.
A group of 10 senators — five from each party — this month 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.
“The question is, how far are Reid and Pelosi going to push this? Because the American people don’t want the bans extended,” Mr. Denton said. “How far are they going to go to appease the far left of their party while ignoring Americans who are suffering from high gas prices?”