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Its a familiar story by now Senate Republicans complaining about being shut out of the legislative process and Democrats countering that the GOP is engaged in just another stall tactic.
The stakes, however, are higher for both parties this week as they bring that same partisan dynamic to the No. 1 issue on voters minds gas prices.
Democrats and Republicans are clearly desperate to avoid the pummeling from voters if they go
home for the August recess without having passed something addressing gas prices, but where they end up at the end of this week is anyones guess.
The big question heading into todays debate over a measure aimed at tamping down speculation in the oil futures market is whether Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be able to break through their long-running stalemate over the number and type of amendments that can be offered.
Democrats originally aimed to limit debate to oil speculators to avoid troublesome, party-splitting issues such as one to increase areas open to drilling. Democratic leaders have acknowledged that they cant get out of this debate without voting on a GOP proposal to open up more drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. Reid met with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on Monday to discuss Democratic alternatives.
Bingaman has several options, his spokesman Bill Wicker said, but theyre all still under construction. But whatever Democrats offer, it will address both the supply side and the demand side affecting gasoline prices, Wicker said.
Democrats had been aiming to minimize their exposure on the drilling issue, as well as other tricky energy-related topics, by voting only on the GOP measure and a Bingaman alternative.
We have offered Republicans a chance to vote on not just speculation, but the issue theyve talked about for weeks: allowing state governors to decide on offshore drilling, Reid said in a statement Monday. We have made it clear that we are willing to compromise and work together on energy legislation that both sides can live with. They can offer their drilling amendment, and we would offer our own alternative. Both measures would receive a vote. That is how the legislative process is supposed to work.
But Republicans quickly shot down that plan.
Im not going to speculate on how this will end ... but voting on just one part of [the gas price issue] is not going to pass the smell test with the American people, McConnell told reporters.
Republican aides were more direct, saying the GOP would likely reject an amendment deal that allowed only two partisan plans.
Were for a full and open debate, and two amendments doesnt sound like a full and open debate, one senior Senate GOP staffer said.
The staffer noted the Senate debated energy bills in 2005 and 2007 for a minimum of two weeks and had more than 20 amendment votes each time.
What makes anybody think that with gas at $4.20 a gallon that the American people want us to do less? the staffer asked.
Democrats responded that Republicans have been saying for weeks that they want a vote on their pro-drilling bill but now appear to be upping the ante.
If this is nothing more than a political ploy to move the goal posts on energy, then this is going to be a pretty short debate, one Senate Democratic leadership aide said.
The aide added that Republicans would be making a mistake if they filibustered the bill over the number of amendments, noting Republicans would be talking about process, while were talking about solutions to our energy crisis.
Still, McConnell appeared to indicate that this debate was less likely to end in the stalemate that has characterized so many legislative disputes in the Senate.
Whats different about this debate ... its clearly and unambiguously the most important issue in the country, he said.
The Senate Democratic leadership aide appeared to agree.
We want this to be a constructive debate. We want to work with these guys, the aide said.
But should the debate this week end in another standoff, Republicans have strongly hinted that theyre prepared to block any other legislation from coming to the floor. Republicans said they would be willing to take the gamble that voters would forgive them for blocking even the Defense Department authorization bill the next measure on Reids to-do list for next week.
The intensity of this issue is without equal, the senior Senate Republican staffer said. Theres nothing that comes close in the consumers mind.
Ultimately, Reid and McConnell will have to take this debate to the group of voters that matter most to them their rank and file. Both caucuses will get a chance to weigh in on their leaders plans during their weekly policy lunches. It will likely be those nervous voices that determine whether Reid and McConnell make a deal or go empty-handed to the voters.