Pelosi Faces Unease on Oil

Posted July 31, 2008 at 6:14pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces growing pressure from within her Caucus — and especially from some of her freshman Members who are being bombarded on the issue in their districts — to bring offshore drilling to the floor as part of a comprehensive energy package in September.

With the drilling issue paralyzing Congressional action on energy, freshman Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said he and other Members have communicated to leadership that there needs to be a vote, and he predicted there would be one.

“It comes up in breakfasts, on the floor, in the hallway,” Altmire said. “There is going to be a vote. Sept. 30 will not come and go without a vote on opening the OCS,” Altmire said, referring to the Outer Continental Shelf. “It’s risen to such an extent in the public discourse that we would have to have a vote.”

Altmire said leadership has gotten the message. “I think they understand that there has to be a vote. The message has been delivered. This issue can’t be ignored any longer.”

But so far, Pelosi doesn’t appear to be budging.

She appeared to crack open the door to considering drilling in new areas during a Thursday afternoon roundtable with reporters, but her staff quickly snuffed such talk. While outlining again her opposition to authorizing oil exploration in protected areas offshore and in Alaska, and reiterating that Republican attempts to do so amount to a “political tactic,” she said, “If it fits into the big picture, it may have a place.”

Pelosi aides quickly slammed the door shut again. “Since some of you have asked if the Speaker’s comments on oil drilling off the coast were a change, we asked her and she said no,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in an e-mail. “She has no plans to bring to the floor a bill to allow drilling in protected areas. The Speaker was referring to the issue of expanding supply. Drilling, no doubt, will be part of the mix in transitioning to a more fuel-efficient global economy.

“Republicans want to consider the issue of OCS drilling in isolation. The Speaker believes Republicans’ ‘none of the above’ proposal should receive additional scrutiny as should their opposition to responsible proposals that Democrats have put forward.”

However, the gridlock on energy bills as Republicans shoot down bill after bill put on the floor on suspension in the House has frustrated some Democrats like Altmire who are going home for August with talking points to attack Republicans but without legislative victories.

“The Republicans have used this issue to hold legislation hostage,” Altmire said.

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), a freshman who played a role in the drafting of the bipartisan pro-drilling package led by Reps. John Peterson (R-Pa.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), said that there is a lot of frustration over the gridlock on energy issues and that it goes beyond the issue of drilling.

Walz said that while polling shows the public supports drilling, they support alternatives as well.

“People want to know why we aren’t moving forward on something,” he said.

Walz also questioned Pelosi’s strategy of putting measures like the oil speculation bill no the suspension calendar to avoid Republican amendments on drilling. Walz said the bill would have easily passed with more than a two-thirds vote if the Speaker had brought it up under regular order.

Altmire predicted that Republicans likewise would be able to successfully block a continuing resolution unless there was an offshore drilling vote.

“I just can’t imagine they are going to allow any bill go through that extends the moratorium without having an amendment,” Altmire said.

Republicans can block the CR either by filibustering in the Senate or with a presidential veto, which could prompt a high-stakes confrontation over a government shutdown. Democrats in 2005 filibustered the Defense spending conference report when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) attached drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Stevens was forced to drop the provision on what he called at that point the saddest day of his life.

A Democratic leadership aide said they haven’t decided yet how to deal with the offshore ban expiration until September but are aware that some Members are demanding a vote on offshore drilling.

However, in addition to Pelosi’s opposition, the politics are complicated because the majority of Democrats still oppose ending the drilling ban, as does their presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and any deal would presumably need to be coupled with major renewable energy and other green-friendly provisions to mollify Democrats.

Some Members are holding open the option of backing offshore drilling — if it is included as part of a comprehensive package. Freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) acknowledged that the drilling issue and gas prices top the agenda at his town-hall meetings. He said that he could support ending the offshore drilling ban but that he wants a good explanation of why oil companies aren’t drilling all of the leases they already hold.

But others are holding firm against expanding drilling.

Freshman Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said that despite suggestions to the contrary, Democrats are on the political high ground opposing drilling in protected areas and instead advocating a comprehensive mix of alternatives. “We need to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time with our energy policy,” he said. “I hope that Democrats have the backbone to stand firm on what is the right thing to do for America.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said that Republicans are not serious about supporting a comprehensive energy package with drilling included and that Democrats are successfully tying high gas prices to Republicans.

“Most voters understand that we are suffering the consequences of Bush-Cheney policies,” Van Hollen argued.

Republicans continued to keep the heat on, with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) pledging to take the issue to the public throughout August and focus on the expiration of the offshore drilling ban in September.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.