Senate rejects GOP bill to expand, speed up offshore drilling

The Senate on Wednesday rejected Republican-backed legislation intended to speed up and expand offshore oil and gas drilling. 

In a 42-57 vote, the Senate failed to move forward with the bill, which was opposed by the White House and most Senate Democrats. Republicans needed 60 votes for the measure to proceed. 

Every Senate Democrat voted against the motion to proceed along with five Republicans: Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (Utah), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and David VitterDavid VitterYou're fired! Why it's time to ditch the Fed's community banker seat Overnight Energy: Trump set to propose sharp cuts to EPA, energy spending Former La. official tapped as lead offshore drilling regulator MORE (La.). 

The legislation – which is similar to bills the House approved in recent weeks – would set deadlines for several upcoming Gulf of Mexico lease sales.

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It also would require lease sales off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia that the Interior Department had canceled following last year's oil spill.

In addition, it would require the Interior Department to approve or deny offshore drilling permit applications within 60 days of filing, or the permits would be automatically approved.

Republicans characterized the bill as a step toward ending what they call undue White House limits on domestic energy development.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Health Care: New GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE (R-Ky.), speaking ahead of the vote, called it a modest “first step” in the GOP energy strategy.

“This bill isn’t our last on this crisis. We could do a lot more to increase production here at home — and we should,” he said.

The White House and Democrats say they, too, support U.S. drilling but alleged the bill would compromise beefed-up safety standards imposed after the BP oil spill.

The White House criticized the bill in a statement Tuesday evening but did not issue a veto threat.

The statement alleged that the plan would “hastily” open areas in the Gulf, Alaska and Atlantic to leasing without adequate environmental analysis. It also noted that the Interior Department plans to hold the Gulf lease sales referenced in the bill by mid-2012 anyway.

The White House slammed the permitting deadline in the GOP bill, arguing it would “constrain” Interior’s ability to ensure permits meet safety standards.

The administration called the provision unnecessary, arguing that permit approvals are humming along just fine. It noted that 53 shallow-water permits have been issued under beefed-up, post-BP-spill safety standards, and that deepwater drilling applications are also being processed in a timely fashion. 

 But Republicans said the plan contains effective safeguards and cast the measure as a common-sense way to boost domestic energy development. “If there is one word that should be used to describe this bill, it would be 'modest,’” said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Collins skeptical of new ObamaCare repeal effort How Senate relationships could decide ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Alaska), the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on the floor Wednesday. “Everything within it is straightforward. Nothing is outlandish, nothing goes too far; there's no poison pills in it.”

The vote followed Tuesday's Senate rejection of a Democratic plan to strip billions of dollars worth of tax breaks for major oil producers like Exxon and Shell.

The back-to-back failures underscore deep partisan divisions on energy at a time when high gasoline prices have lifted the issue to the top of Capitol Hill and White House agendas.

—Andrew Restuccia and Josiah Ryan contributed to this report.