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Pelosi Maneuvers to Block Drilling Votes

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appears intent on preventing votes on opening more areas to offshore drilling despite the stirrings of a revolt by rank-and-file Democrats after months of concerted efforts by House Republicans.

When Democratic leaders’ latest legislative response to rising gas prices comes to the floor this week, it will be on the suspension calendar, Pelosi told reporters.

The suspension calendar has become the Democratic leaders’ favorite weapon for jamming Republicans who either must capitulate or be blamed for blocking popular-sounding bills. And for Democrats, it’s all done without having to deal with difficult votes on pesky amendments such as oil drilling or gun control.

It worked perfectly on the recent Medicare “doctors’ fix” when House Republicans deserted their leadership en masse. And last week, Democrats inserted a gun provision into a suspension bill, which passed by voice vote, avoiding a tough vote for their Members.

Using the tactic on energy legislation helps Pelosi sidestep amendments on opening up land to offshore drilling — amendments that could pass as gas prices soar and public opinions polls show overwhelming support for the idea.

Democrats spent the week after the July Fourth recess with a shift to pro-drilling rhetoric after months of press conferences where they ridiculed the idea.

But the rhetorical shift wasn’t matched by much in the way of policy, as Pelosi has maintained that no new acres be opened for drilling along the East Coast, West Coast, portions of the Gulf Coast or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Pelosi said Democrats still don’t want to drill in those “pristine environmental areas” but instead want to spur development in land already open to drilling, by threatening to yank leases from oil companies and urging the Bush administration to speed leasing in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. Pelosi also sought to relieve pressure by urging Bush to sell off some of the 700 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

But considering that dozens of Democrats support drilling in ANWR and are likely to back an expansion of drilling offshore if given an opportunity, Pelosi would risk losing control of the issue if she allowed open votes on the floor.

Pelosi dismissed the polls.

“The American people want the price of oil to come down. They don’t know ANWR from NPRA,” she said, referring to the 20 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is Democrats’ new favorite site to drill.

She also defended using suspensions.

“We are trying to get our job done around here, and we work very hard to build consensus, and when we get it, we like to just move forward with it, as we did on the Medicare bill, as we did with the SPR bill, the list goes on and on. But it is not about a tool. It is about the legislative process and how we get a job done.”

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the latest Democratic package appeared to be “nothing more than political cover. It is a way for them to claim they are for more domestic energy production when they aren’t.”

The geology of the National Petroleum Reserve will require a far more disruptive set of oil wells than ANWR, Steel said, where a far smaller footprint would suffice.

“They are actually backing a policy that is far more damaging to the environment than the one we’re backing,” Steel said.

“Democrats alleging that they are putting massive bills on the suspension calendar because they’ve reached consensus is as laughable as it is offensive,” added Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “What are they afraid of? This is hardly the kind of open government the Democrats talked a lot about before taking the control.”

Pelosi said Republicans were perpetrating a hoax by suggesting that opening up more land for drilling would reduce gas prices.

“Why aren’t they drilling on nearly or over 80 million acres? Why are they saying we don’t have the equipment to do it, but let us drill in pristine environmental areas? Because it is a hoax, it is subterfuge. It is a decoy to take your attention away from the fact their policies have produced $4-a-gallon gasoline.”

But the tight rein leadership is keeping on oil votes may not last, dissident Democrats predict.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who announced a pro-drilling bipartisan working group with Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) that will meet this week, ripped both parties’ leaders as a “mutual accusation society” and predicted that dozens of rank-and-file Members want to support increased drilling as part of a Member-driven energy independence package.

“We’re going to save this Congress from itself,” Abercrombie said. “The public is not interested in Republicans versus Democrats on the energy issue. ... They are assigning blame to the Congress.”

“The point here is to put together a comprehensive bill that we can get broad support for and show the public we’re really trying to do something,” Abercrombie said. “We can stop the hemorrhaging of dollars leaving the U.S.”

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), a supporter of opening up more land on and offshore, said Democratic leaders are shifting how they talk about the issue but not what they plan to do about it.

“They are now talking that they want to drill, but they want to drill on the current property,” he said. “So much of that land is not productive. We need to be able to lease where there is resources.”

Green said he hoped the Senate might cut a deal that would spur the House into action.

“I think that will make the House more flexible,” he said.

Meanwhile, oil prices continued to rise relentlessly.

At her press conference, Pelosi appeared to take credit for cutting oil prices by nearly $10 a barrel because of the suspension of oil purchases for the strategic reserves.

But by the end of the week, oil prices soared to new records, closing in on $150.

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