Monday night, after weeks of pressure from Republicans to lift a federal moratorium on new offshore oil drilling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) abandoned her adamant resistance, indicating that she's now open to a vote on expanding exploration.
"[Republicans] have this thing that says drill offshore in the protected areas," Pelosi told CNN's Larry King late Monday. "Well, we can do that. We can have a vote on that. But it has to be part of something that says we want to bring immediate relief to the public and not just a hoax on them."
The sharp change of position arrives as Republicans, who face a potentially disastrous November election, think they've found a lifeline in offshore drilling. Indeed, with gas prices near historic highs, polls indicate that most Americans support now more drilling. In a continuing Capitol Hill revolt, dozens of House Republicans have circulated through Washington over Congress's August vacation, taking to the dim and empty chamber floor with demands that Pelosi call a vote on the controversial measure.
The Republicans hope to portray the Democrats as the party of callousness on the issue of towering gas prices. In retaliation, Democrats accuse the GOP of cozying up to big oil interests. The debate has evolved into a blame-game over which side is blocking the process -- and which is fighting hardest for the needs of constituents.
Yet if a Republican primary in Tennessee last week is any indication, GOP leaders might want to reconsider their strategy. In an upset victory Thursday, GOP challenger Phil Roe defeated freshman Rep. David Davis in a contest where Roe portrayed the incumbent -- one of the House Republicans giving energy speeches -- as an oil company minion. It marked the first primary defeat for a Tennessee incumbent of either party in 40 years. Many political experts say the Republicans' defense of the thriving oil industry may haunt other GOP candidates in November.
"Offshore drilling is by no means a big winner," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. "Being seen as in the pockets of big oil is not where you want to be as a candidate."
"I do believe that it's a seismic event in Congress," David L. Epstein, political science professor at Columbia University, said of Davis's loss, "and everyone in Washington has taken notice. It certainly could be a harbinger of things to come."
During the primary, Roe, the conservative mayor of Johnson City in eastern Tennessee, attacked Davis for accepting donations from oil company political action committees, even as gas prices were soaring and the companies' profits were at historic heights. Roe had refused PAC money throughout the campaign.
"While East Tennesseans have been struggling with out-of-control gas prices," one TV ad charged, "David Davis has pocketed thousands from oil companies. Why is 'Big Oil' trying to buy our seat in Congress, and why is Davis accepting their cash?"
Anthony J. Nownes, political science professor at the University of Tennessee, said that it's tough to gauge the absolute effect of the oil campaign on the primary, but considering the outcome it probably helped Roe.
"You would think that in a Republican primary attacking your opponent as a fan of big business would not work," Nownes wrote in an email. "But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding."
Other factors, of course, were also at play. Nownes described Roe as "a credible challenger," with both money and name recognition feeding his chances. Jamie Osborne, a consultant for the Roe campaign, downplayed the effect of the oil debate on the election, saying it was just one of many deciding issues.
"It was a way to cue people into the differences between the candidates over influence and money," Osborne said. "To say [the election] was a referendum on big oil, I would say, is a stretch."
Indeed, though Roe's attacks highlighted Davis's association with oil companies, Roe also supports a drilling expansion as part of a broader energy strategy, Osborne said. The distinction was not between attitudes toward big oil, but in each candidate's stand on corporate donations.
In the 2008 election cycle, Davis accepted $9,000 from oil and gas interests, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan campaign watchdog group. Roe took in $1,500 from the same industry, though not from any PACs.
"The anti-PAC stance is what resonated," Osborne said.
The issue of offshore drilling has dominated the domestic political debate over the last few weeks, dividing lawmakers along mostly partisan lines. Republicans have argued that removing the moratorium on new drilling will lower prices at the pump. Pelosi has pushed instead to tap the government's emergency reserves and increase funding for the development of alternative fuels.
Bolstering Pelosi's position, a report from the Energy Information Admin., a branch of the Energy Dept., issued a report last year revealing that expanded offshore drilling would have no significant effect on domestic production or fuel prices before 2030. Yet Democrats have had a tough time convincing the public of this. One recent national poll put support for increased drilling at 69 percent.
The drilling debate has also gained traction on the presidential campaign trail, where both Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are trumpeting plans for energy independence. Not doing Pelosi any favors, Obama said last month that he would support some expanded drilling if it were wrapped up in a larger energy reform package -- a stance Pelosi said Monday she would not rule out herself.
"That is not excluded," she told King.
House GOP leaders on Tuesday welcomed Pelosi's comments, but have vowed to continue their empty-chamber revolt until a drilling vote is called.
Putting more pressure on Pelosi and Democratic leaders, the congressional moratorium on new drilling expires at the end of September, meaning lawmakers would have to extend it before leaving Washington for the year. GOP leaders have threatened to shut down the federal government if the expanded offshore drilling doesn't come up for a vote next month.
Nownes, said the combination of factors seems to predict some drilling expansion this year.
"The Republicans are vulnerable … to the charge that this move will enrich the oil companies but have no discernible impact on prices," said Nownes of the U. of Tennessee. "But in the end, I think the Republicans will win this one. Obama has already softened his stance on the issue, and many Democrats in Congress will go along. I think we are in store for more drilling, no matter what happens."
Much will hinge, however, on the price of gas in September, when Congress returns to Washington; not to mention how the issue is ultimately digested by voters. Some experts say the lines in the debate were drawn long ago.
"People who aren't already committed Republicans," said Jacobson of UC-San Diego, "aren't going to see this as a solution to their energy problems."