OCS Suspension Vote May Fall Short but Another Chance Awaits

A Senate-passed offshore drilling effort on the House floor today will not likely win enough votes to pass under a suspended rule, according to several well-placed observers tuned in to the process.

With a two-thirds majority required to move under "suspension of the rules," the House is poised to vote today on Senate-passed oil and gas legislation, S. 3711, that opens 8.3 million gulf acres to new leasing. The bill would also set up shared production revenue for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.

One industry lobbyist said he doubts two-thirds of members present will vote to pass the bill under suspension, though he added it is not impossible. The transition under way to the new Congress is complicating the effort, the lobbyist said.

"It's a challenging situation in which to whip this thing," he added.

An analysis by Virginia-based Friedman, Billings, Ramsey and Co. anticipates the bill will fail to win the two-thirds needed for passage under suspension. The bill cleared the Senate 71-25 in August on a bipartisan vote, while a much more sweeping offshore drilling bill passed the House 232-187 in June with the support of 40 Democrats.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the incoming chairman of the House Resources Committee, is circulating a letter to House members urging them to vote against the Senate-passed measure, attacking the limited debate allowed under suspension.

"This measure, which is limited to oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, also hardly constitutes comprehensive energy legislation to deal with the price of motor fuels and natural gas," the letter states. "It is a 'bumper sticker' bill, a rifle shot, more about where the federal revenue from drilling goes rather than providing for greater energy security."

A spokesman for Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not say specifically how she plans to vote. The aide noted that "historically, she has been opposed to offshore drilling" but added that "typically this is not something that is whipped on in the caucus."

If it fails today, the measure may get another vote under regular order Thursday under a closed rule, with only a majority needed for passage and no amendments.

Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) told reporters today that he has secured a pledge from the House GOP leadership to bring up the bill under regular order if it fails under suspension. Peterson was a chief backer of the House-passed bill that would have relaxed drilling bans that cover both coasts in addition to expanding gulf access. But he is now backing the Senate plan as a first step toward expanding offshore natural gas production.

Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) -- a lead sponsor of the Senate bill -- said yesterday the senator will urge a vote under regular order if it does not pass under suspension.

"We anticipate a strong vote tomorrow. We are hopeful of final passage, but if it doesn't pass, we are going to urge the House to take it up this week under regular order," she said.

A House GOP leadership aide declined to say yesterday whether the bill would be brought up again if it does not get the two-thirds vote. The industry lobbyist said the level of support demonstrated in the suspension vote could determine whether House GOP leaders bring it back under regular order.

Another congressional aide expects the White House to add pressure for a vote under regular order if it achieves a majority in the vote under suspension. The White House supports the Senate bill.

There are also pitfalls to raising the bill under regular order. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has indicated he plans to offer a motion to recommit to include provisions addressing flaws in the federal program that allows royalty waivers for gulf energy producers (E&E Daily, Dec. 4). The House already approved a version of the Markey plan in May.

A successful motion would in all likelihood kill the bill because any changes would require Senate approval during the brief lame-duck session. One Capitol Hill aide said key Democratic supporters of the Senate energy bill are urging House Democrats not to support even attractive changes to the bill, arguing instead they can be addressed when Democrats assume control next year.

'A whole lot more palatable'

Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) told reporters during a conference call yesterday that the Senate plan is "a whole lot more palatable" to many House Democrats than the wider House-passed drilling bill. Melancon supported the House bill but is now seeking support for the more limited Senate plan.

He said the bill is an "environmental bill," pointing to its funding for state-driven wetlands restoration and conservation. The bill steers 37.5 percent of gulf production revenues to the four gulf producing states and 12.5 percent to the stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund.

One question is how some key GOP advocates of wider domestic production will approach the vote. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who is currently chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has criticized the Senate bill, arguing it does not provide access to enough resources.

Asked about his vote yesterday, Barton was evasive. "I have very mixed emotions about that," he said. "I haven't decided yet how I'm going to vote."

Also unclear is how outgoing Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Resources Committee until the new Congress, will vote on the Senate bill. Pombo is a key architect of the House measure and has been critical of the limited scope of the Senate plan.

Environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, are pressing members to vote against the bill, arguing it puts coastal and marine ecosystems at risk. But not all conservation advocates oppose it: the National Recreation and Park Association is urging support, citing the long-term dedicated revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Manufacturers and other natural gas-reliant industries are pushing hard for the bill. The bill provides access to 1.26 billion barrels of oil and 5.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to its sponsors.

Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.

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