House Republicans Postpone Action on Gulf Offshore Drilling Bill

House Republicans abruptly pulled from floor action Tuesday a bill to open a large area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling after it became clear the legislation lacked the two-thirds vote needed for passage.

The bill, which has already passed the Senate, was to have been one of the last major legislative achievements of this session of Congress.

It would open 8.3 million acres of the Gulf that is now off limits to drilling and also steer hundreds of millions of dollars of federal royalty payments to four Gulf coast states — a windfall for Louisiana, which would get about half the money.

Republicans leaders gave no reason for the decision,

But an aide to a lawmaker strongly supporting the legislation said that a number of Republicans withdrew their support at the last minute and some Democrats also had signaled they would not support the measure.

The aide, who requested anonymity because another attempt is expected on the bill, said GOP leaders planned to revive the bill in a way that only a majority vote is required or attach it to another bill. GOP leaders had put the measure on an expedited schedule, requiring two-thirds approval.

"We have precious little time left," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a statement, adding she remained hopeful the legislation can be taken up later this week.

"The House will revisit the offshore drilling legislation again at some point before the end of this week, though details on the mechanics of how the measure will be considered have yet to be decided," Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, said in a statement.

The drilling bill is one of a string of measures House GOP leaders have readied for this week's "lame-duck" session under an expedited procedure that bars amendments, but also requires a two-thirds vote for approval.

Environmentalists have lined up against the bill and some Republicans are cool toward the measure, favoring a more expansive offshore energy development plan that passed the House in June that would have lifted drilling bans along both the East and West coasts. Senate leaders said the House bill had no chance in the Senate.

The Senate-passed bill covers an area 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle and is up to 300 miles from Florida's Gulf coast. It is believed to contain 1.3 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough gas to heat 6 million homes for 15 years. The country uses about 21 million barrels of oil a day.

House leaders have been bombarded by calls from a wide range of business groups — from chemical companies to pulp and paper industries as well as electric utilities and manufacturers — for the House to accept the Senate-passed bill and send it to President Bush for his signature.

Business groups have argued that new offshore energy development might ease natural gas prices, which have dropped significantly this year but still are three times to four times higher than what they were only a few years ago.

"This vote is the last chance Congress can come through for the American public," said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, urging the House to pass the Senate bill.

Industry groups had favored the broader House-passed bill, but see the Senate bill as the most that can be expected, and likely more than what can be gotten from the Democratic-controlled Congress next year.

"You take what you can get," said David Palmer, president of the American Gas Association, which represents gas utilities and — like agriculture and the chemical industry — has been struggling with high fuel costs.

But environmentalists argued the new Gulf drilling would increase the chance of environmental damage and have little impact on prices.

"Opening our national coastline to destructive drilling will only add to the billions in profits already being made by Big Oil, do nothing to lower gas prices for American families or energy costs for American businesses, and will keep our nation dangerously dependent on oil," said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club.

Landrieu, D-La., who helped craft the Senate bill, said the revamped revenue sharing plan would produce huge environmental benefits to the Gulf Coast by providing money for wetland restoration, levee repairs, flood control and hurricane protection. The bill eventually would give states 37.5 percent of royalties from all Gulf oil and gas production, compared with about 2 percent now.