WASHINGTON – Lawmakers sped for the exits Friday as Congress was to begin a five-week recess after a summer session noteworthy for bitter partisanship and paralysis on the issue topmost in the minds of many voters: the cost of gasoline.
As its last major act, the House passed by a 409-4 vote its first spending bill, a $72.7 billion measure awarding generous increases to veterans programs and military base construction projects.
More noteworthy however, was what Congress failed to do: pass energy legislation and other measures aimed at lowering the price of gasoline.
Senate Republicans blocked a bill aimed at curbing speculation in oil markets, while a similar bill and several others by House Democrats — including a plan to encourage drilling in already available coastal areas and in Alaska — failed to advance after party leaders brought them to the floor under procedures that required supermajorities to pass. That procedure blocked Republicans from forcing a vote on opening new areas to oil drilling.
Republicans have been pressing to allow oil exploration in areas that are currently off limits, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They have been relentless in their assault on Democrats over the topic, even though opening the Outer Continental Shelf to new exploration wouldn't put any oil on the market for a decade or more.
Democratic leaders have been resolute in blocking new offshore exploration, even as oil patch members and moderates in the party support the idea. It's clear that if a vote were allowed, new offshore drilling plans would be allowed.
"Congress shouldn't leave its business unfinished while American wallets are drained at the pump," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla.
After the House officially adjourned and the C-SPAN cameras were off, a few dozen Republicans remained on the floor giving impassioned speeches about Democrats' decision to adjourn without a vote on their energy plan.
"Republicans will not go quietly," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "Let us demand that the president of the United States ... call a special session of this Congress on energy."
Democrats believe they can weather the criticism since voters are hardly sympathetic to the big oil companies pressing to lift the drilling restrictions. They perform better than Republicans in opinion polls on energy — despite the shift in opinions favoring offshore drilling — as well as on most other issues.
The battle over energy has also largely shuttered the annual appropriations process, the 12 bills funding Cabinet agency budgets that are supposed to be passed by the Oct. 1 start of the 2009 budget year. The House and Senate chairmen of the Appropriations committees shut down panel deliberations to avoid votes on lifting the offshore moratorium, which has been in place for about two decades.
The spending measure that passed Friday is just one of just a handful that even has a chance to become law before Congress adjourns for elections. It awards generous increases for veterans medical care and military base construction and base closures. It is easily the most bipartisan of the 12 annual appropriations bills since it funds politically sacred veterans accounts, despite exceeding President Bush's already generous budget increase for veterans and military construction by $3.4 billion.
The measure also contains 510 so-called earmarks, line-item projects requested by the administration and lawmakers. Early this year, top Republicans such as Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio made a big push to impose a moratorium on such hometown projects, sensing an election year opening with voters, especially people in the conservative GOP base.
But the GOP battle against earmarks was a distant memory Friday as the House voted 350-63 against an amendment by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to kill the 103 projects that were sought by lawmakers only, including readiness centers, parking garages, fitness centers and chapels.
The Senate held its last vote Thursday night, though noncontroversial business may be conducted Friday.