Democrats Avoiding Votes on Drilling
House Republicans sometimes lament that the minority has few "tools" in its "toolbox" to steer debate in the chamber. That may be the case, but in recent days the GOP has been using what few tools it does have -- and public anger over rising gas prices -- to put Democrats on the defensive on the question over whether to open more land to oil and gas exploration.
Last week, the Appropriations Committee abruptly postponed a planned markup of the Interior spending bill. At that session, GOP Rep. John Peterson (Pa.) would have offered an amendment to the measure to lift the existing ban on most offshore drilling. The official explanation for the postponement was that Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) was too busy dealing with the Iraq supplemental bill to hold the Interior markup. Of course, the supplemental is done now and there have been several other Appropriations markups this week, but no sign of the Interior bill. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), chairman of the Interior subcommittee, broke from the party line to admit the real reason for the postponement. "We've got some amendments that are contentious," Dicks told CongressDaily (sub req'd). "We'd like to fend off these amendments and we are still counting" votes. Obey finally announced today that the Interior markup would take place after the House returns from the July 4 recess, and it's not clear whether committee Democrats have a plan for how to deal with the Peterson amendment then.
On Tuesday night, the House failed to pass the Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act. The measure drew 276 votes, including 51 Republicans. But the measure was defeated because it was on the floor under "suspension of the rules," meaning it needed to draw a two-thirds majority to pass. Why did Democrats use such a procedure for an obviously popular bill? Because they thought it would pass easily, as a similar bill did last year. But a bill under suspension is also not subject to amendments or motions to recommit, and Democrats don't want the GOP to force a vote on domestic oil drilling.
Democrats argue that they have their own answer for the need to boost domestic production: "Use what you have," which means oil companies should drill on the land for which they currently have leases, rather than seeking control of more territory. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) scoffed Tuesday at a question on whether Republicans were getting "any mileage" or "traction" on the drilling issue. "Polling data indicates that we're 20 points ahead of them," Hoyer said. "If that's traction, I wouldn't to have that kind of traction."
But when Hoyer was asked why he wouldn't just allow the House to vote on the issue, he essentially ducked the question and reiterated his points about why Democrats were right on the policy and Republicans were wrong. "The fact of the matter is if we allow drilling everywhere tomorrow, there would be no additional supply available" soon," he said.
The majority of Democrats may well feel good about their party's policy, but do their vulnerable members -- particularly those from energy-producing states -- really want to have to vote on the issue? Would a member in a swing district have felt comfortable going home for the recess, with gasoline over $4 a gallon, and explaining why he or she voted against more drilling? That's the political problem Democrats face, and Republicans have been exploiting it.
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