WASHINGTON - House Republicans yesterday killed a Democratic plan designed to spur drilling on already available federal lands in Alaska, the West, and the western Gulf of Mexico.
Republicans scoffed that the Drill Act - imposing a tougher "use it or lose it" rule on leases already held by oil companies - would do little to boost exploration. They renewed their demand to open up the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the eastern Gulf of Mexico to exploration.
The bill won a 244-173 majority, but still failed because it did not get a two-thirds margin under rules requiring a supermajority vote. Democratic leaders appeared to choose the unusual process because it allowed them to deny Republicans a vote on opening up new offshore areas for drilling.
Democrats pointed out that any new offshore leasing - sought by the administration, most Republicans, and some Democrats - would not produce oil for a decade or so and therefore would not effect today's $4-plus per gallon gasoline prices.
But with voters so angry over gas prices, Democrats felt the need to burnish their pro-drilling credentials in the face of unrelenting GOP pressure to open up the Outer Continental Shelf to oil exploration.
"Drill. Drill. Drill," said Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Drill here. Drill now."
Democrats again called on President Bush to release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an attempt to immediately drive down prices.
As debate began, the White House weighed in with a veto threat. It said a Democratic provision requiring oil and gas companies to develop on already leased lands before obtaining new leases would curb future US production.
"By blocking some firms from competing for new leases, this legislation would further increase gasoline prices that already exceed $4 per gallon," the White House said in a statement.
On the eve of the vote, the Interior Department issued a major new lease in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve. The Democratic bill would require a more active department leasing program on the reserve, which is to the west of the off-limits Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The reserve is the subject of a longstanding battle between environmentalists and the oil lobby.
With the rise in pump prices, public opinion on energy issues is shifting in favor of a more permissive stance on drilling, even though the idea of opening the Atlantic and Pacific coasts or the eastern Gulf off Florida's beaches to oil and gas companies long has been seen as a nonstarter.
Democrats are scrambling to appear pro-drilling - hence the "Drill Act" title for yesterday's bill - even as leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, are dead set against reversing the drilling bans.
Democrats say the industry should first go after oil and natural gas on 68 million acres already leased.