"Talks are ongoing, and it is important to the leader to get a piece of legislation in front of the president before the week is over," said Carolyn Weyforth, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) also expressed a sense of urgency. "We have got to have something done by this week," he said.
Both chambers plan to adjourn at the end of next week so lawmakers can head home to campaign for the midterm races.
Senate leaders in both parties say Senate-passed legislation that opens 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to new leasing is the broadest measure their chamber can pass and are pressing the House to accept their bill. House-passed legislation goes further by relaxing leasing bans that cover other coastal areas.
A Senate aide tracking the issue said talks have risen to the leadership level. "It's Frist-McConell-Hastert-Boehner," the aide said. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) yesterday said negotiations on the issue continue and that he had been briefed on the substance of the negotiations.
In separate interviews yesterday, two senators said there have been some discussions of breaking the impasse by attempting to graft provisions of the expansive House-passed bill onto separate legislation this year in return for the House passing the Senate's limited leasing plan.
"We are looking at ways that we might adopt some aspects of the House bill in order to get some energy bill through," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "What we are trying to do is see if the House might be willing to take the Senate bill if we can take some House provisions and get them passed some other way here in the Senate."
He emphasized this would not include drilling off the South Carolina coast. A key target for expanded drilling outside the gulf is Virginia, where the state's senators want to see offshore production and a share of production revenue for the state in return.
But it is unclear if the discussions will lead anywhere, or whether it is merely chatter among lawmakers batting around various scenarios to pass a measure that expands domestic production before Congress heads home for fall campaigning. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said House drilling advocates are continuing to seek ways to expand drilling beyond new Gulf of Mexico leasing.
Asked about the Senate's insistence that they cannot pass a more expansive bill, Vitter replied: "House members don't necessarily believe that, they want to know if we can consider modest changes to the Senate bill, maybe focusing on a couple of states like Virginia and Georgia for possible additional drilling."
Vitter also confirmed that talks have explored the idea of using another conference report as a vehicle. "It has to be considered," said Vitter when asked if grafting provisions to another bill is a realistic possibility.
DeMint said lawmakers have discussed the defense authorization bill or another measure moving this year. Still, even if lawmakers made this effort, its chances of succeeding in the Senate could be dim. Efforts to weaken offshore leasing moratoria on either coast are likely to provoke filibusters.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) has been fighting to salvage some of the bill the House passed in June. Brian Kennedy, an aide to Pombo, called the idea of adding some provisions to another bill in exchange for passing the Senate plan a "non-starter."
"The chairman found it strikingly similar to a 'We'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today' proposal," Kennedy said.
DeMint and Vitter both noted that with the clock winding down, a formal conference over the competing offshore bills is highly unlikely. "We know we don't have time to go to conference, probably, before the end of this year to marry what the House and the Senate have done, particularly with the obstruction we have here on the Senate side, we probably could not even get conferees," DeMint said.
If a final deal remains elusive before Congress adjourns for the midterm races, they could try and address the issue in a lame-duck session. But Vitter said members see this month as the best time. "If we don't, we certainly do have a little more time, but it is certainly my strong preference to do it in September," he said.
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