WASHINGTON House Democrats failed Tuesday to resurrect a bill to punish price gouging at the gas pump while maneuvering to block Republican attempts to expand offshore drilling, an idea gaining in popularity amid $4-a-gallon gas prices.
Action on legislation that would assure continuation of the ban on oil and natural gas drilling in most of the country's coastal waters was put off until later this summer after it became increasingly clear that Republican lawmakers may have the votes to lift the drilling moratorium.
As Democrats prepared a string of energy proposals before lawmakers depart for the July 4 holiday recess, Republicans charged that they were being blocked from getting a vote on whether to end the ban on offshore oil and gas drilling.
Last week GOP presidential candidate John McCain as well as President Bush called for ending the blanket prohibition on energy development over 80 percent of the country's offshore waters. Republicans contend that the offshore bans should be ended to allow for more domestic oil and gas production, an argument that has gained support with $130-a-barrel oil raising the cost of everything from food to air travel.
The House Appropriations Committee has postponed consideration of an Interior Department spending bill that included continuation of the offshore drilling ban. Republicans had prepared a proposal that would have ended the ban and allowed oil and gas development 50 miles from shore in all U.S. coastal waters.
"Somebody's afraid that we'll send a message" and lift the drilling ban, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel, said Tuesday as the panel focused on other legislation.
The similar Interior spending bill, which also included the offshore drilling ban, was put off in the Senate as well.
Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to push through a measure that would have made gasoline and diesel fuel price gouging a federal crime, with penalties of up to $2 million for individuals and possible jail time. The vote was 276-146.
Utah Rep. Jim Matheson joined other Democrats in voting for the measure, while Republican Rep. Rob Bishop voted against it. Republican Rep. Chris Cannon didn't vote on the bill.
The House has passed similar gouging legislation previously, as has the Senate, only to be abandoned. Supporters of the bill argued that gouging is widespread, while opponents said it is not and would be difficult to prove even if it occurred.
Democratic congressional leaders remain strongly opposed to lifting the drilling moratorium, arguing that oil companies already hold leases to 40 million acres of federal waters that they have not moved to develop.
"One way you deal with this problem of supply ... is to force oil companies and gas companies that own permits to drill them," said Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a senior member of the Democratic leadership.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that legislation to lift the ban has significant support and might pass the House, but he told reporters, "If we allow drilling everywhere tomorrow, there would be no additional supply available."
Energy experts and oil geologists acknowledge it would take five to 10 years for any oil or natural gas to be produced if the ban were ended today.
"We have the votes," maintained Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., sponsor of the pro-drilling measure that would open waters 50 miles offshore to oil companies. But he said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California "will do everything she can do to stalemate it."
Emanuel, at a news conference, sidestepped questions on whether Democrats are concerned the GOP drilling measure was gaining support and that Democratic leaders were refusing to allow it to come up for a vote.
Instead, Emanuel emphasized that Democrats soon will push legislation that would require oil and gas companies to explore and develop the waters on which they already have obtained federal leases. If they don't, they will lose the leases.
Oil companies and their GOP supporters in Congress "are using this crisis as an excuse" for a grab for additional federal land and waters, said Emanuel.
Other Democratic proposals range from giving the federal government new tools to curtail speculation in oil trading markets by imposing new requirements on the amount of collateral traders must have in oil purchases and requiring a reduction in mass transit fares.