Road Map: Senate Republicans to Ponder Reid’s Offer

Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:29pm

They said they couldn’t leave town without doing something about high gas prices, and Senate Democrats and Republicans are trying to find a way to do just that before heading home for the August recess.

[IMGCAP(1)]As of press time Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were engaged in the first serious negotiation over how to structure the debate on a bill to crack down on oil market speculation that has been stalled

for more than a week by partisan bickering over broader energy policy.

“There may be a way forward,” McConnell told reporters Monday evening. “At least we’ve got the discussion going now.”

That small step toward bipartisanship didn’t extend to an omnibus bill designed to thwart the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to more than 30 minor measures. The Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to beat back a GOP filibuster that was predicated, in part, on the notion that the Senate should not move off the oil speculation bill until Republicans were given the opportunity to offer myriad amendments.

If an energy deal could be struck, both parties would get to vote on a number of amendments designed to highlight their plans for lowering prices at the pump. But if conventional wisdom on the various known packages holds, none of them would pass, except perhaps the underlying bill. Members of both parties have said unregulated speculators have artificially driven up the price of oil, but they disagree about the severity of the problem.

Republican and Democratic aides downplayed expectations for the renewed energy talks, saying a deal would not likely be forthcoming Monday evening.

Instead, Republican leaders were expected to present a counteroffer, possibly as late as today, asking for more than the four amendments Reid offered to allow. Senate Republican leaders decided Monday evening to present Reid’s offer as well as a couple of suggested counteroffers to the entire GOP Conference at their weekly luncheon today.

A deal would save Democrats and Republicans from returning to voters at the end of this week with a message that essentially blames the other party for a lack of Congressional action on gas prices. If all goes well, they could claim they even overcame partisan gridlock to pass consensus legislation on market speculation.

But if talks break down again, Republicans have their fallback position of blocking every other piece of legislation in an attempt to force a longer debate on energy prices. Republicans have complained that Democrats tried to restrict amendments that would expand oil and natural gas drilling in the United States and its Outer Continental Shelf.

Democrats countered that they offered Republicans a vote on a GOP leadership-driven bill that would increase drilling. Democrats upped that offer Monday, however, to include separate votes on oil shale, nuclear energy and offshore drilling.

The potential for a deal on energy threw the rest of the Senate schedule into uncertainty. Without an agreement on energy amendments, Reid had planned to bring up a bill to extend several expiring tax provisions, including many devoted to renewable energy. Even though Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made changes designed to entice more Republican votes, it remained unclear whether he would attract the four votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.

Senate Democratic leaders also were contemplating on Monday whether to attempt action on a bill to shield journalists from some subpoenas. Finally, Reid also was mulling whether to move to a Defense Department authorization bill by Friday.

While the Senate may have a decent chance of ending the week on a bipartisan note, the situation in the House remains highly charged.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote his colleagues that the chamber’s adjournment vote will be one of the biggest votes of the year, given that Democrats have refused to allow votes on expanded oil drilling.

“If the Democratic majority refuses to allow a vote next week on the American Energy Act, a vote for the adjournment resolution will be a vote against the American people and a vote against American energy independence,” he said, calling Democrats the “Drill Nothing Congress.”

But Democrats dismissed the Republican talk on adjournment as a cheap ploy.

“It’s an easy thing to say when you know it’s not going to happen,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said he’s not surprised Republicans want to stay in Washington.

“They don’t want to go home and face their constituents who know they voted against oil companies to ‘use it or lose it,’ against calling on the president to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that would bring immediate relief to Americans, and they would have to explain why they voted against a housing and mortgage-relief package for millions of Americans,” he said.

The prospect of a Senate deal to vote on oil drilling and other GOP priorities had House Republicans salivating Monday, as they contemplated the pressure it would put on Pelosi to allow similar votes.

“Any Senate deal that includes expanded production of American energy to help bring down gas prices will definitely ratchet up pressure on the House Democratic leadership,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for Boehner. “We see more and more Democratic Members here in the House speaking out in favor of expanded domestic production, in effect directly challenging the Speaker’s ‘pack it up and go home’ position.”

House Democrats will focus on an oil speculation bill as this week’s effort to attack the gas prices issue. Like many energy measures that have failed, it will be considered under suspension, which blocks amendments but also gives the GOP the chance to quash the bill because two-thirds support is needed to pass.

Democrats also plan to emphasize the record oil company profits expected to be announced this week, tying them to Republicans who have blocked efforts to roll back tax breaks for oil companies while pushing for leasing them more land to drill.

Other bills the House will likely vote on include a paycheck equity bill, the conference report on consumer product safety and the tobacco regulation bill.

But what looks like the main event will be the first regular appropriations bill to hit the floor this year: military construction and Veterans Affairs.

Democrats have said they expect the bill to come up under an open rule but with requirements that Republicans file amendments in advance.