By Ben Geman - 05/18/11 06:58 PM EDT
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 Lee (Utah), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and David Vitter (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.
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 McConnell (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 Murkowski (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.