WASHINGTON – Congress appeared deadlocked Wednesday on responding to the nation's energy problems amid a bitterly partisan rift over whether to open long-restricted offshore waters to oil and gas drilling.
A Democratic proposal to counter oil market speculation fell victim to the drilling dispute, failing 276-151. That was nine votes short of the two-thirds needed for approval because the measure had been offered under expedited rules imposed by the Democrats to avoid GOP attempts to attach an offshore drilling provision.
A Senate bill, also aimed at curbing abuses in the oil markets, has been stalled for two weeks as Republicans have insisted it be opened to votes on a variety of other energy issues, principally offshore oil and gas drilling in areas long under development bans because of environmental concerns.
"This is no substitute for a real bill on drilling," declared House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio, who accused Democrats of using the oil market speculation measure to "divert attention" from their refusal to allow a vote on offshore oil drilling.
The House bill would have given new authorities to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to oversee oil markets, increase the agency's staff and set new requirements on certain trading. Market critics have argued that excessive speculation has contributed to the soaring oil prices.
At the White House, President Bush for the second time in two days called for lifting the offshore drilling bans, saying the Democratic-run Congress was letting down the American people by refusing to allow votes on the matter.
"The American people are rightly frustrated by the failure of the Democratic leaders in Congress to enact commonsense solutions," the president said, even while acknowledging that access to oil and natural gas in off-limits coastal waters would be a long-term solution and would not lower today's soaring gasoline prices.
Bush has lifted an executive ban on offshore drilling signed by his father in 1990, but that has no effect until Congress lifts its prohibitions as well. Some of the moratoria along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico have been in place for 27 years.
"All the Democratic leaders have to do is to allow a vote," the president said. "They should not leave Washington without doing so."
By all indications, lawmakers will depart at the end of the week for their five-week summer recess without taking action on energy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has argued that oil companies already have vast areas available for drilling but have chosen not to develop the federal leases they already hold. She has given no sign of allowing a drilling bill to come to the House floor.
"The president has failed in his economic policy, and now he wants to say, `But for drilling in protected areas offshore, our economy would be thriving and the price of gas would be lower,"' Pelosi said Wednesday. "That hoax is unworthy of the serious debate we must have to relieve the pain of consumers at the pump and to promote energy independence."
Republicans "have one answer and one answer only — drill in places that are not now authorized" even as million of acres of federal land and waters are open for energy development in leases not being used, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said.
Meanwhile, the Senate stalemate over energy showed no sign of being resolved.
For nearly two weeks, the Senate has been embroiled in a partisan dispute over GOP demands that they be given a vote on a string of energy proposals, including expansion of offshore oil development.
Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called energy the most important issue facing the country and argued that Democrats did not want to give it a full airing, including considering provisions for more domestic energy production.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered to take up four Republican proposals as part of the oil market speculation measure, including a GOP drilling provision. Republicans first rejected the overture, but on Wednesday said they wanted to accept the offer.
But by then, Reid said he did not want to discuss the amendments any longer until Republicans agreed on a compromise on extending a variety of tax credits for wind, solar and other alternative energy programs. An attempt to advance the tax extensions bill failed Wednesday, 51-43, as Democrats fell nine votes short of getting the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Reid accused Republicans of refusing to compromise on energy, calling them "beholden to Big Oil."
Meanwhile, the Interior Department said Wednesday it was developing a revised five-year offshore drilling plan that would encompass all Outer Continental Shelf waters, including those under the congressional drilling ban. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that would give the next president a "jump start" on developing some the off-limits waters in conjunction with states should Congress lift its drilling restrictions.
Sen. John McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has called for lifting the Outer Continental Shelf drilling bans and for working with states on more offshore oil and natural gas production.
His Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Barack Obama, has opposed lifting the current drilling bans.
Both candidates were campaigning outside Washington on Wednesday and did not vote on the tax extensions bill.