WASHINGTON – Abandoning months of opposition, House Republicans agreed Friday to move an offshore drilling bill that would open new territory in the Gulf Coast to oil rigs but would not ease restrictions on coastal waters elsewhere.
The Senate passed the compromise measure, 71-25, in August. Now, with time running out on the party's majority rule, GOP leaders will send it to the House floor on Tuesday under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority for approval, said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
If that fails, they could bring it up for a regular vote later in the week, although that could complicate its passage.
House leaders had previously blocked the bill, approving more ambitious legislation that would allow drilling in coastal waters across the country unless a state objects. But even drilling supporters conceded the House bill was going nowhere, and industry groups have urged Republicans to accept the compromise measure.
Madden said Republican leaders would now support the Senate measure and work to pass it. Moving it as a "suspension" bill will speed the process and block amendments, he said.
Dave Parker, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, said winning a two-thirds majority could prove difficult. But he was optimistic the bill could pass before Congress adjourns in the coming weeks.
He said the industry would prefer a broader package but, "You take what you can get."
The bill would allow new oil and natural gas development in 8.3 million acres of federally controlled waters in the eastern-central Gulf of Mexico, with backers saying it would help ease tight markets hurting consumers, particularly for natural gas.
Along with opening new territory, the bill would sharply increase federal royalty shares for Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, from less than 2 percent to 37.5 percent. In 2017, the new royalty formula would apply to all oil and gas produced in the Gulf, not just the newly opened territory, creating hundreds of millions dollars in new revenues for the states.
Although the bill has not generated as much opposition as the House's more aggressive proposal, environmental advocates vowed to fight it.
"We just think it's ludicrous to vote this bill so close after an election in which the American public voted against big oil," said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's land protection program. "Why reward the oil industry with a bill like this in the last week of a lame-duck session?"
"We'll urge members to vote against it," he said. "I think we have a shot."
At least one lawmaker who previously opposed the compromise, Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., said he would support it as a modest improvement even though he thinks it accomplishes too little.
Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican who backs the bill, said leaders were working hard to line up votes.
"We're optimistic this time," he said. "It's a compromise approach, and I think it's done in a way that can get that super-majority."
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said the bill would send a positive signal to voters as Republicans transition into the minority.
"It would be good if we could get a few things done on the way out the door and show people that ... we really can govern," Kingston said.
President Bush has said he supports new offshore exploration but has criticized revenue-sharing provisions that would divert money from federal coffers.