Energy A Priority As Congress Returns From Break

Lawmakers return to Washington this week energized by their conventions and turning their attention to energy. House Republicans stayed in town over the break to demand an end to the ban on offshore drilling. Democrats now appear to be more open to compromise.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When Congress comes back from a break this week, one of the most immediate challenges will be restructuring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Also a top priority: energy. We asked NPR's Debbie Elliott to tell us what's ahead in the energy debate on the Hill.

You might remember one mantra heard at the National Republican Convention: Drill, baby, drill.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: It's the message. We heard the chants in St. Paul and of course, the drill here, drill now is part of the Republican energy plan. We've heard it from the presidential candidate John McCain, and we've heard it from Republican members of Congress. And in fact, we've heard it all during the August recess of Congress from Republicans. They've staged what they call an energy speak-in on the House floor.

MONTAGNE: You mean, Republicans stayed in Washington to what? Get out the message?

ELLIOTT: Exactly. They are trying to get their message across that they are ready for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call a vote on opening up the U.S. coast to offshore oil and gas development. About 130 members from the Republican Party came back and forth, taking their turn in the quiet House Chamber to speak about energy and high gas prices.

There were no microphones. They would just have to stand on the floor. The tourists would come down from the gallery, sit in the seats where House members normally sit, and listen. So it wasn't an official session. It was a Republican speak-in, and their message was clear: Start the drill - offshore in Alaska, tap oil shale in Western states.

They are also interested in promoting more nuclear power, solar and wind power, and some conservation measures. Here's Georgia Congressman Paul Brown last week promoting this Republican energy plan.

Representative PAUL BROWN (Republican, Georgia): America has been drilling for ice on Mars, yet we cannot drill for oil in America. It's insane. We have been coming here for 24 days now demanding a vote on the American Energy Act. Nancy Pelosi needs to get off her book tour and come back here and do the people's work. That's what we're doing.

MONTAGNE: And Debbie, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi initially was against offshore drilling, but she's been nudged a little more to the center because there are Democrats out there who can't afford to be against this.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. You know, polls clearly showing that a majority of Americans now favor allowing more oil and gas drilling off the U.S. coast. While some Democrats have said these Republicans are just political showboating, it's clear that Democrats have started to think about what they can do when they're back in action this week.

Speaker Pelosi is now saying that she will allow a vote to what she says responsibly increased domestic supply by opening some parts of the outer continental shelf to drilling, but, she says, with appropriate safeguards and without taxpayer subsidies to big oil. So she's certainly trying to get some of the things that Democrats want if she is going to open up some oil and gas drilling.

MONTAGNE: And Debbie, another issue that is now pending in Congress is spending, and that is not unrelated, as it turns out, to this whole debate about where the issue of energy is going.

ELLIOTT: Right. October is the new fiscal year, so Congress has to approve the spending bills to keep the government running by then and if not, they'll have to approve continuing resolutions that would keep the government running. That's typically what has been happening in recent years and what's expected to happen in an election year.

But this congressional moratorium on drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico has been in place since 1982. It has to be renewed each year as part of the bill that funds the interior department. So the question is whether the moratorium would be continued if they pass a continuing resolution for the interior department, or whether it's going to be dealt with in some compromised energy legislation.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Debbie Elliott, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Renee.

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