Senate Democrats to Push for Bipartison Drilling Bill

Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate will push a bipartisan energy proposal that would allow for some expansion of offshore drilling when Congress returns next week from a five-week recess.

A spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, leader of the Senate's Democratic majority, said Wednesday the plan would allow Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina to opt into leasing programs starting 50 miles (80 kilometers) off their shores. The spokesman said the idea now has the support of 16 senators, eight Democrats and eight Republicans.

The proposal, which has not yet been introduced as legislation, also would lift a ban on drilling off the Gulf coast of Florida, invest $20 billion on developing petroleum-free motor vehicles and extend expiring tax credits for renewable energy.

It is expected to face opposition from lawmakers in both parties. With Congress planning to meet for only three weeks before recessing again for the November election, its prospects are dim.

Many Republicans, including President George W. Bush, would like to see the moratorium on drilling lifted along the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Some Democrats are unlikely to support any measure that would include increased offshore drilling.

"This is going to be hard to do; we are under no illusion here," said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who led the negotiations on the proposal with Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. "But we've tried to put something together that is responsible and broad-based and bipartisan, and I think it's got a shot."

Majority Leader Reid is working with supporters to get the legislation to the Senate floor as quickly as he can after the Senate's return Monday, said spokesman Jim Manley. "It appears that this proposal is picking up steam on both sides of the aisle," Manley said.

When the proposal was introduced in early August, Reid said he did not agree with every part of it. Manley said Reid still believes drilling "is not the answer to everything" but is a comprehensive approach that could be a way to forge a compromise on the issue.

Six senators signed on to the proposal last week, including Republicans Norm Coleman and John Sununu, both facing competitive re-election bids as high energy prices became touchy political issues.

Other Republicans supporting the proposal are John Thune of South Dakota, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Warner of Virginia. Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia are on the Eastern Seaboard and would be enabled by the legislation to allow drilling.

Democratic supporters include Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Tom Carper of Delaware and Ken Salazar of Colorado. Oil operations in the Gulf of Mexico already provide a major share of Louisiana's state budget, and Landrieu is in a tight race for re-election in November.