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Congress warms to drilling; Senate moves on defense bill

WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats promised a series of votes next week on offshore oil drilling as Republicans agreed Monday to let the Senate proceed on a defense bill that had been bottled up because of partisan disputes over the country’s energy priorities.

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he is ready to take up two proposals that would allow limited oil and gas drilling 50 miles off Florida’s Gulf coast and in the Atlantic off four southeastern states as well as a broader Republican drilling bill.

“We are offering Republicans multiple opportunities to vote for increased drilling,” declared Reid, addressing what has become the biggest energy issue in Congress as well as in the presidential campaign.

The Senate on Monday voted 83-0 to move ahead with the defense bill as early as today as Republicans abandoned their filibuster on the measure that authorizes $612.5 billion in military spending, including $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A version of the defense bill already has passed the House.

The two parties remain at odds over a second economic stimulus package.

Congress in February passed a two-year, $168-billion package that sent rebate checks to millions of Americans. Now, Democrats are eyeing a package to provide $50 billion or more for bridge and road projects, home-heating assistance and other aid, including a possible extension of unemployment benefits.

But the Bush administration, which opposed some of these proposals earlier this year, has not embraced the idea of a second package. A presidential veto probably would doom the effort.

But offshore oil drilling continued to dominate the rhetoric on Capitol Hill.

The issue gained momentum during the just-concluded Republican convention where – amid delegate chants of “drill baby drill” – GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain called for opening currently off-limits waters to energy development as soon as possible.

His rival for the presidency, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, also has signaled support for some additional expansion of offshore drilling as part of a broader energy package.

A bipartisan group, originally known as the Gang of Ten, that has crafted a drilling compromise gained more members and has grown to 22 senators. The group has proposed allowing drilling 50 miles off the coasts of Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia and off the Gulf coast of Florida.

Separately, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was preparing a proposal that also would include drilling in the currently off-limits eastern Gulf of Mexico and possibly elsewhere. Both proposals would rescind oil industry tax breaks and shift the money to spur energy efficiency and renewable energy programs such as those to provide wind and solar power.

Republican leaders are expected to push for broader offshore drilling and are likely to call for lifting drilling bans along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico. They also have strongly opposed any additional taxes on oil companies.


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