Congress and New Political Minefields
By Jonathan Weisman
Add a new variable to the suddenly unsettled presidential race -- Congress.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol next week for a quick session in which they and presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain will face political traps and minefields. First up is energy. Republicans spent their August recess demanding an "all of the above" strategy to lower gasoline prices and decrease dependence on imported oil, pushing legislation that would open the offshore Outer Continental Shelf to drilling and fund alternative energy and conservation. House Democratic leaders are preparing legislation they say will call the Republicans' bluff.
The Democratic House bill would open the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to oil drilling outside a 100-mile buffer zone, provided the plan is approved by the state legislatures and the governors of the Southeast. Florida is expressly exempted. The package would also include extension of tax breaks for wind, solar and biofuels projects, funding for alternative energy research and additional conservation measures, financed in large part by the repeal of tax breaks for oil companies.
Republicans said today most of them would have no problem turning down the deal, which they believe does not go nearly far enough in opening up the coast to oil exploration.
"To put an artificial limit on [drilling] is ridiculous," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R), who represents coastal Georgia. "Oil could be right off the shore, or it could be 500 miles off."
But there were fears that the measure could pick up significant Republican support from Florida Republicans eager to show they support expanded oil drilling but are leery of oil rigs off the Sunshine State's beaches and other Republicans hoping to show some action on the issue.
Next up is likely to be a second economic stimulus package, in the form of money for infrastructure projects, relief to state governments struggling with rising Medicaid costs, and disaster relief for the Gulf coast and Midwestern flood zone. Again, the idea would be to dare Republicans vowing to cut government spending to oppose such a package in the midst of job losses and rising unemployment.
"With the unemployment rate at a five-year high, it is clear that we must take immediate action to strengthen our economy," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said today. "The New Direction Congress will soon act on a second economic stimulus package and a comprehensive energy plan that will create new American jobs, invest in renewables, increase domestic production, make America more energy independent, and break free of the failed Bush economic policies that John McCain and Republicans in Congress have rubber-stamped for far too long."
Republicans are planning their own counteroffensive, pushing a more expansive energy plan and demanding a vote one way or the other.
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