July 26, 2006

Offshore drilling bill moves forward in Senate

By Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill to open waters in the Gulf of
Mexico off Florida to oil and natural gas drilling easily
cleared a procedural hurdle on Wednesday that paves the way for
the U.S. Senate to vote on the measure in coming days.

But Senate Republican leaders said they would oppose a push
by Democrats to widen debate to include possible amendments on
automobile efficiency standards and other proposals to lower
soaring U.S. energy prices.

The move keeps debate centered on Republican leaders' plan
to develop 8.3 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off
Florida and share billions of dollars in federal drilling
royalties with four Gulf Coast states - Texas, Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama.

The Senate voted 86-12 to allow debate on the drilling bill
after Democrats like Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico backed
the procedural motion in hopes of winning concessions through
the amendment process.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate should
consider five Republican amendments and an equal number of
Democratic ones.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the chamber's No. 2 Republican,
said sponsors were worried that amendments could threaten a
"delicate compromise" struck with Gulf Coast senators on
revenue sharing.

"Let's not kid ourselves -- this bill is good for the Gulf
Coast" but won't lower gasoline prices, Reid said. "I hope we
can do better before we finish this congressional term."

Congress is set to recess in August, and lawmakers are
loath to return home without some concrete action by Congress
on soaring energy prices, which are likely to play big in the
mid-term elections in November.

Democrats are still hoping that Republicans will allow the
Senate to debate changing the bill and consider a plan by
Democrat Barack Obama that would gradually increase U.S.
automobile efficiency standards.

"We're hopeful that cooler heads will prevail," Bingaman's
spokesman said, pointing out that the current bill is "pretty
weak soup in terms of domestic energy supplies" because it
leaves most U.S. offshore acreage under a drilling moratorium.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House of
Representative are pushing for Congress to clear a more
expansive offshore drilling bill akin to the one the House
passed last month.

"I would certainly encourage it to be larger rather than
smaller," said Rep. Joe Barton, who chairs the House Energy and
Commerce Committee.

Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy
Committee, said the current limited bill had a better chance of
passing the Senate than the House's version.

"Anything that changes this (Senate bill) very much won't
pass the Senate," Domenici said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Doggett)