Senators' Plan Would Allow Some Offshore Drilling

A group of bipartisan senators proposed offshore drilling in some areas if states agree, and a major push over the next 20 years for vehicles to use alternative fuels. It would be paid for by taking away tax breaks from oil companies.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

It's recess time. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill went home today for a five-week break. Up until almost the last minute, they were in a heated debate over what to do about high gas prices and they could not find a way forward. Then today, 10 Democratic and Republican senators made a bid to break the logjam.

As NPR's David Welna reports, they have unveiled a proposal of their own.

DAVID WELNA: The senators call themselves the Gang of 10. Most sit on the Agriculture Committee and come from rural states hit hard by high energy prices, and many are seeking re-election, including one of the group's ring leaders, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss. He describes an epiphany in the Senate Chamber some six weeks ago.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): And I'm sitting on the floor one day and I hear Republicans talking about the Democratic plan, Democrats talking about the Republican plan, and seeing very clearly that nothing's going to happen.

WELNA: At today's unveiling of the so-called New Era Energy Reform Act of 2008, some senators who for weeks had been debating as partisans donned bipartisan hats.

One of them was South Dakota Republican John Thune.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): There are a lot folks who see the energy issue as a great political issue to campaign on, but I think most of the - I'd say all of the 10 people who are here today believe that this is an issue that Americans want a solution on.

WELNA: In essence, the group's proposal boils down to this: some offshore drilling, some alternative energy paid for by the oil companies. It lets four states - Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia - approve drilling that's more than 50 miles offshore, and it expands drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to within 50 miles of Florida. That might satisfy Republicans. Democrats may like the plan's call for converting 85 percent of cars and trucks to run on alternatives to oil within two decades. The $84 billion tab would be paid for by raising oil company royalties and taking away some tax breaks.

For Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, it's a major breakthrough.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): I think we've changed the topic in Washington from where it's sort of Shakespearean - to drill or not to drill. That's no longer the question.

WELNA: And like her Republican counterparts, Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu says allowing more drilling sends a strong signal to energy markets.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): In my view, this bill will do more to lower gas prices at the pump today than anything that this Congress has done in recent memory.

WELNA: Making oil companies pay for most of the proposal runs counter to GOP orthodoxy. Tennessee Republican Bob Corker sought to downplay what appears to be a major concession.

Senator BOB CORKER (Republican, Tennessee): This is just about correcting something and actually trying to get the incentives around energy on balance again. And I hope that - well, I doubt this is a case that the oil companies will view it that way.

WELNA: The question, though, is whether others will embrace the proposal.

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, who along with Chambliss led the Gang of 10's talks, says there's been some resistance.

Senator KENT CONRAD (Democrat, North Dakota): Both of us went back to our leadership, gave them briefings on where we were headed, and I think it's fair to say our leaderships on both sides are somewhat uncomfortable with what we have come up with.

WELNA: Asked later how he viewed the plan, Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was sure the Senate could come up with something better.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Without trying to rain on anyone's parade, drilling is not the answer. It may be an answer to figure out if we can have some kind of a compromise. But I think that the answer to the problems of America's dependence on foreign oil is to lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and I think that can only be done by having a we're-going-to-get-to-the-moon approach to renewable energy.

WELNA: The Gang of 10's members expect more will to compromise once lawmakers feel the wrath of fed-up constituents.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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