Senate Dems offer moderate concessions on drilling

Senate Democrats on Tuesday announced modest concessions, such as expedited offshore leases, on expanded oil drilling, even as talks on an overall energy bill were teetering on the verge of collapse.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) unveiled a proposal to quicken the pace of processing new and existing applications for offshore leases. Such a proposal would be part of an overall bill that also includes a speculation crackdown and initiatives promoting renewable energy as well as conservation and a loosening of the policies that govern the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

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Bingaman said Democrats will not support lifting the congressional ban on offshore oil drilling in areas not currently leased. President Bush lifted an executive ban earlier this month and urged Congress to follow suit.

“But we are saying that as to existing leases, there can be steps taken to ensure more diligent development of those leases, and would give authority to the Secretary of the Interior to take those steps,” Bingaman said. “As to parts of the Outer Continental Shelf that are not currently leased but could be leased, we say we can have accelerated leasing and investigation of those areas to see what areas could be leased.”

Specifically, Bingaman said Democrats are open to expedited leasing in areas that are available for leasing and not subject to any moratorium. Under the proposal, the Department of the Interior would be asked to speed up the leasing process for these areas. At the same time, federal officials would be given new authority to expedite federal oil and gas leases that could conceivably quicken production.

The Democratic proposal is an attempt to thread a needle between Republicans, who are insisting on expanded drilling rights for oil companies, and environmental groups, who are calling on Democrats to oppose such rights.

It comes as negotiations between the two parties have reached an impasse of sorts. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have been working toward an agreement on amendments, but Durbin and Reid are insisting on a limit to GOP amendments, and Kyl and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are pushing for a more open process.

“We’re looking for the kind of amendment process that we had on this kind of bill last year, and on this kind of bill three years ago, which would give both sides an opportunity to offer amendments related to the subject,” McConnell said.

“What I would accept is the process that the Senate has utilized to debate the great issues of our day historically,” said Kyl. “Which is, that senators have the right to offer amendments … This ought not to be about the Democratic leader deciding how many amendments the Republicans can have.”

But Reid and Durbin say limiting amendments is only practical because the Senate has only two weeks before its August recess to finish the energy bill as well as housing legislation, low-income heating assistance, an energy tax extenders package and a package of holds on legislation by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

“We’ve offered them a realistic alternative that will lead us to a vote,” said Durbin. “I told Jon Kyl I think that our branch of this discussion has gone as far as it can go … Let’s be realistic. We have, what, 10 days maybe until we leave.”

The impasse raises the stakes of a prolonged standoff in the last two weeks of July — Kyl said the GOP will resist any attempt by Reid to divert the Senate’s focus onto other topics.

“Republicans, I will tell you this, are committed to one subject over the next couple of weeks, and that's energy,” he said. “We're not going to play any games about other subjects being brought up in amendments or anything like that. We are focused, laser-like, on getting this problem resolved.”

Reid and Durbin both said the GOP’s real goal is to protect oil companies and block any energy bill.

“The Republicans don’t want to legislate,” Reid said. “It’s obvious they’re living in the past, and still want to maintain the status quo in protecting the oil companies. That’s what this is all about.”

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