House And Senate Toil On Energy Package

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Lawmakers have arranged a series of votes this week on energy policy. Even though some bills may pass, they are unlikely to become law. Still, members of Congress campaigning for re-election will use the vote to show how serious they are about combating high oil prices.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week in Congress, lawmakers will be voting a series of times on energy policy. The bills may never become law, but they are likely to be talked about by lawmakers when they campaign at home this fall. So we're going to talk about them now with NPR's David Welna. David, welcome to the program once again.

DAVID WELNA: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: We should mention these energy bills have a lot of proposals, but the thing that gets attention politically is offshore drilling proposals. Where do things stand?

WELNA: Well, right now Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats will try to make another run at revamping energy policy. They got bogged down last week because some Democrats from oil patch and red states did not think that Pelosi had given up enough ground in agreeing to expand drilling during the August break.

INSKEEP: You're telling me Democrats in Republican-leading areas want more offshore drilling?

WELNA: They do. Their constituents are demanding it. They needed political cover. They needed to say that they were voting for what their constituents were demanding. So Pelosi had to sweeten the offer. Her latest proposal is that virtually all the coastal states be able to opt into such drilling, and that all federal waters at least 100 miles from shore automatically be open to drilling, as opposed to the current 200-mile limit. And Pelosi seems to be suggesting that Democrats will not be attempting to renew the offshore drilling moratorium this year, since she defends her bill by saying that it would at least put some limits on the executive offshore drilling moratorium that President Bush is lifting at the end of this month.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; House Speaker): Lifting moratorium says that the drilling can take place three miles offshore for most states, except for two, Texas and Florida. What we are proposing will be something that will say, no, unless a state agrees, there won't be offshore drilling. And when they do drill, it will be a minimum of 50 miles offshore.

INSKEEP: Let's remember the basic debate here. The question is when and where can oil companies drill offshore? The federal government has stopped most of that activity. But now some of it could be coming back, and it sounds like a big about-face for Speaker Pelosi, David Welna.

WELNA: It is indeed, Steve. And Republicans who've been demanding more offshore drilling are claiming victory. And at the same time, they say that Pelosi's real stance on more drilling is yes, but... Here's House GOP leader, John Boehner.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; House Minority Leader): It sounds like they're continuing to come our way. So we congratulate them. But having said that, we see the outline of their proposal, it looks like a hoax. It says, we're going to drill, but we're not going to have revenue sharing for states. So what incentive does a state have to allow drilling off their coast if they're not going to get to share in the revenue?

INSKEEP: Is any of this debate likely to lead to a change in the law that might cause an oil well to be drilled anywhere?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think it's quite unlikely. And that's because Republicans don't want to hand Pelosi a pre-election victory by going along with her proposal. There aren't a lot of winning issues that Republicans have to run on this fall, but they figure their push for more domestic drilling is one issue that they do win on because they want to characterize Democrats as being unable to deliver what the American people are demanding.

INSKEEP: So is it likely that Congress is going to do anything on energy policy before the election?

WELNA: Well, I think the one energy measure that does stand a fairly good chance of getting approved by both the House and the Senate is a bipartisan compromise bill that's backed by a group of senators who started out calling themselves the Gang of 10 in early August. Again, it's an opt-in proposal for states in the Southeast to allow offshore drilling. But that's almost certain to be vetoed by the White House if it survives a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

And I don't see the votes there to override such a veto. And then the big question will be whether Democrats indeed try to renew the offshore drilling moratorium in the big stopgap spending bill that they need to pass by month's end to keep the government operating, and whether they and Republicans would risk a government shutdown just a few weeks before a big election if that measure gets vetoed.

INSKEEP: David Welna, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Welna.

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