Delegates at the Republican convention chanted "drill, drill, drill" and "drill, baby, drill" in support for more offshore and Arctic drilling. (Photo: Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor)
House Republicans signaled Monday that they are ready to cut off government spending over the issue of offshore drilling, though the party's Senate leader said he hopes to reach an energy deal and avoid a shutdown.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, called a Democratic energy proposal to allow limited offshore drilling inadequate. Boehner said House Republicans would vote against a spending resolution needed to keep the government running when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 unless restrictions on offshore drilling are dropped from it.
"We're going to insist that any continuing resolution that passes does not continue the drilling ban," Boehner said.
Boehner's threat is largely symbolic, as Democrats control enough votes in the House to pass a spending bill over Republican objections. But Republican cooperation will be needed to pass such a resolution in the Senate, where 60 votes are necessary to overcome a filibuster.
"There is still time to act on this issue," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "And we should."
While McConnell downplayed talk of a government shutdown, other Senate Republicans said they would vote against any funding resolution that includes the ban on offshore drilling expansions, which has been renewed in appropriations bills since 1992 and was most recently included in the fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill (PL 110-161).
"We have to take that moratorium away," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.
The call for more offshore drilling has been a powerful election-year issue for Republicans, with appeal to taxpayers unhappy with higher energy prices. Chants of "Drill!" filled the Republican National Convention last week, and GOP lawmakers kept a daily vigil in the House chamber during the summer recess. Republican bloggers and talk show hosts have attacked party members trying to negotiate a bipartisan Senate compromise.
"For the last five months, we have used this issue effectively to put Democrats on the defensive, and that's going to continue into November," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner.
But even as they try to defuse the politically charged issue with legislation allowing limited new offshore oil and gas exploration, Democrats warn that a government shutdown would boomerang against Republicans.
"Let's be clear," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Shutting down the government means that senior citizens stop receiving checks and veterans stop receiving health care."
Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said Republicans are kidding themselves if they think a shutdown will help them politically.
"If Republicans want to have a debate about denying senior citizens Social Security checks and health care, that's a debate we're willing to have," he said.
House Leadership Package
House Democratic leaders are expected to move a bill to the floor as early as Sept. 11 that would allow Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas to opt into drilling off their coastlines. A bipartisan group of senators has offered a similar compromise as part of a package that would also roll back tax breaks for the oil industry.
"It this bill is what we think it is, it's nothing but another ... poison pill sham," Smith said. "Any deal, any bill, that puts 80 percent [of the outer continental shelf] off limits permanently will not find our support."
At a news conference Monday, House Republicans were nearly drowned out by protesters - including some dressed as polar bears and pelicans - chanting "Spill, baby, spill!" and "Shame on Big Oil."
Democratic leaders have not said whether they will bring their bill to the floor under a rule that would give Republicans a vote on their own drilling amendment.
The Senate is expected to spend most of this week debating a defense authorization bill (S 3001), providing leaders with a little breathing space to negotiate before moving energy legislation to the floor next week.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D - N.M., and the panel's ranking Republican, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, are hosting a bipartisan energy summit Sept. 12.
Reid said he plans to bring up a Bingaman-sponsored draft bill that would open new areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to drilling.
While that proposal, along with provisions extending tax credits for alternative energy, would likely enjoy bipartisan support, the bill would offset costs by cutting subsidies to oil companies, which many Republicans would oppose.
Reid also would call up the compromise draft legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of senators - the so-called Gang of 16 - which would allow the Southeastern states to opt into drilling off their shores, as part of a broader package including an estimated $84 billion in investments in conservation and efficiency offset by cutting tax breaks to oil and gas companies.
Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who helped assemble the gang, said an additional five Democrats have expressed support for the plan. But many Senate Republicans remain committed to a complete repeal of the moratorium.
"We're all trying to see how we can get that moratorium lifted," said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski.
McConnell Says Work Must Go On
McConnell - caught between pressure to avoid a deal that does not end the moratorium and the political risks of being blamed for a government shutdown - has indicated a willingness to find a compromise.
"We also need to do our most basic duty of funding the government by passing appropriations bills," he said.
"The upcoming election is no excuse to put off our responsibilities for another day.... The work of government must go on, regardless of how strong the partisan currents flow. It always has. And it should this year."