Senators Offer Drilling, Alternative Energy Plan

A bipartisan group of senators have unveiled an $84 billion plan to permit offshore oil drilling while backing a push to convert most vehicles to using alternative energy within two decades. Scott Simon talks to David Welna about the political implications of the deal as lawmakers head home for the August recess.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The headline was going to be that Congress left town for the August recess without doing anything about high energy prices. But at the last minute, a bipartisan group of 10 senators came up with a sweeping plan to overcome weeks of impasse. NPR's David Welna joins us from Capitol Hill. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID WELNA: Sure, Scott.

SIMON: So, as late as Friday, the senators on the floor were still blaming each other for gridlock on gas prices. At the same time, a small group of colleagues was holding a news conference to unveil this bipartisan proposal. What's in the plan?

WELNA: Well, it basically boils down to giving Republicans what they've been holding out for by opening up areas off the Atlantic Coast and near the Florida Coast in the Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling. But it also would please Democrats who'd been pushing for developing alternatives to oil, with a big push to convert most vehicles on the roads so that they don't run on oil within two decades. And the price tag for all of this would be 84 billion dollars. And in another concession to Democrats, the big oil companies would end up paying for most of that by losing some of their tax breaks and by paying more royalties.

SIMON: What's at stake in this bill?

WELNA: Well, you know, it's a big potential campaign issue. And the question is which party it's a winner for. Because Republicans look at the poll showing a majority of Americans now favor more drilling, so they think they can use that to cudgel Democrats on their resistance to lifting drilling bans. But Democrats point to a new poll showing Americans blame big oil and the Bush administration for high oil prices far more than they blame congressional Democrats. So, Democrats think they've got a good campaign issue by accusing Republicans of being in the pockets of Exxon Mobil.

But I think lawmakers from both parties may find a lot of frustrated constituents when they go back home empty-handed. And you could sort of hear that in the voice of Majority Leader Harry Reid as he wrapped up the session yesterday on the Senate floor.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I feel a lot of disappointment, though, Mr. President. I think back upon this work period and wonder what might have been, what might we have accomplished if our Republican colleagues had decided to dance with us more often than fight with us.

SIMON: To back up for a moment, David. Congress had some real, solid legislative achievements this session. They passed a big housing bill. What else?

WELNA: That housing bill really was their crown achievement. But congressional Democrats also had some big wins by overriding presidential vetoes on the farm bill and on Medicare spending. They actually had to have Ted Kennedy leave the hospital where he was recovering from brain surgery to cast the decisive vote on that one. They also forced the president to reverse his stance on an expanded GI bill and on extending unemployment benefits. But Mr. Bush got what he wanted when Congress revised a spying law, known as FISA, by giving retroactive immunity to phone companies that took part in warrantless wiretapping.

SIMON: And...

WELNA: So it was sort of mixed result.

SIMON: And when the legislators, of course, return in September, they'll be just weeks away from the presidential election. What do you expect?

WELNA: Well, I think energy will continue as a dominant issue, both in Congress and in those campaigns. In fact, I think you may not see much action by Congress on approving the annual spending bills that, in theory at least, are due October 1. And that's because Democrats don't want Republicans attaching amendments to these must-pass bills that would expand oil drilling. And the stopgap bill they'd have to pass to keep the government operating if they don't get those spending bills passed would keep in place the bans on drilling in protected areas. So there's already talk that Republicans could even force a government shutdown by blocking such an extension. Stay tuned.

SIMON: NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Thanks very much.

WELNA: Sure, Scott.

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