Senate rejects widening offshore drilling
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WASHINGTON -- With Democrats citing last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a cautionary tale, the Senate on Wednesday decisively rejected a Republican plan to allow more coastal oil and gas exploration and to speed the issuance of drilling permits to oil companies.
The 57-42 vote against the measure came after Republicans on Tuesday rejected a Democratic plan to end tax breaks for oil companies, as both parties sought to gain political advantage with frustrated consumers contending with high prices at the pump.
Republicans said the measure proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was a modest, common-sense approach to lowering gasoline prices by trying to influence the market through increased production from the nation's ample resources.
"Instead of punishing a handful of companies within the oil and gas industry, we provide new opportunities to put Americans back to work," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "Instead of ignoring high fuel prices, we take meaningful steps to restrain and ultimately reduce them."
Fifty Democrats, five Republicans and two independents opposed the measure; 42 Republicans backed it. Sixty votes were required to advance the bill, so it fell 18 short.
Ms. Murkowski and other backers of the measure said it would also improve the safety of offshore drilling by requiring companies to develop spill response and containment plans. It would also establish a public/private task force on spills and try to fill any identified gaps in legal authority to respond to accidents.
Democrats dismissed the Republican plan as a risky effort to accelerate drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast without the necessary safeguards in place. They accused Republicans of not learning from the BP spill.
"This reckless bill would allow drilling in sensitive coastal areas, even though current safety and oversight laws have been deemed to be inadequate to prevent a repeat of the Gulf disaster," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. And Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, said, "You would think that the BP spill never happened if you consider this bill."
Though high gas prices are looming as a potent political issue, neither the Republican measure nor the earlier Democratic one was ever considered likely to pass, since the politically divided Congress is finding it difficult to find consensus on major policy.
Lawmakers said it would take a concerted bipartisan effort by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to make progress on an energy bill that could clear Congress.
First Published May 19, 2011 12:00 am