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Partisan dispute divides Congress over energy legislation

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Senate Republicans block a final vote on an oil speculation bill
  • GOP wants to expand offshore drilling and increase domestic oil production
  • Democrats oppose lifting offshore drilling ban, say it won't lower gas prices
  • Analyst: Parties think they have political upper hand and are unlikely to compromise
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From Ted Barrett
CNN Congressional Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress is locked in a partisan dispute over energy legislation that has produced plenty of combustible debate but is unlikely to produce a bill to help lower gas prices anytime soon.

The two top Senate Democrats -- Sens. Harry Reid, left, and  Dick Durbin -- say the GOP wants to help Big Oil.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, says the public supports more oil drilling.

In the Senate, a bill meant to crack down on oil speculation has stalled because of a partisan procedural fight.

On Friday, Republican senators were able to prevent a final vote on the bill by winning a procedural vote. Democrats got 50 votes, 10 votes short of the 60 required by Senate rules.

Forty-three GOP senators voted against the bill.

"The Republican senators have chosen to take a dodge," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said after the vote, according to The Associated Press. "If you don't like our speculation bill, what do you want? Silence. They said they want this energy debate to go on forever."

The fight in the Senate revolves around Republicans wanting to offer up to 28 amendments on a range of energy issues, including an expansion of offshore drilling, but Democrats want to limit them to two, saying there is not enough time to consider more.

Republicans said they want an open debate and the opportunity to vote on a wide range of issues. They accused Democrats of trying to limit amendments to avoid a vote on offshore drilling -- an assertion the Democrats deny.

Democrats counter that Republicans simply want an endless debate and are looking for an excuse to defeat the bill if they don't get everything they want.

Top Senate Democrats also charge that Republicans are more interested in helping oil companies than finding solutions to high gas prices. See gas prices across the country »

"Now they want to give them [the oil companies] a big, fat, sloppy smooch as they leave office by extending millions of acres for drilling across the United States and the outer continental shelf," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate Democratic whip. "It isn't going to happen."

The fight moved to the House of Representatives on Thursday when Democrats introduced legislation that would have required President Bush to release 70 million barrels of oil from the 700-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The president objects to the plan, saying the oil is meant to be used during a national security crisis.

The House voted 268-157 for the bill, but Republicans were able to defeat the legislation because it failed to achieve the two-thirds vote required by House rules to proceed.

Republicans said the plan would not significantly lower prices and argued that Congress instead needs to approve new offshore drilling, something most Democrats oppose. See the reasons why oil prices have gone up »

"Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama refuse to allow a vote because they worship at the altar of radical environmentalism," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, referring to the House speaker, the Senate leader and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

As the legislative process breaks down, lawmakers from both parties are arming themselves with policy and polling data aimed at pinning the blame for the gridlock on the other side and boosting their re-election chances in November. Video Watch how gas prices have Congress tied in knots »

On the policy front, the main difference between the parties is whether to allow new offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf. Republicans argue that boosting domestic production would help wean the United States from foreign oil and that lifting a ban on offshore drilling would have an immediate impact on the price of oil in the futures markets.

Democrats counter that oil companies should explore the millions of acres already approved for drilling before being allowed to drill off the coast, where reserves are limited and environmental risks are higher. They also argue that drilling will have little impact on oil prices in the near future.

On the political front, lawmakers of both parties point to divergent polls that show the majority of Americans back their approaches.

"We know that over 70 percent of the American public believes that we ought to expand domestic production of oil and gas, both onshore and offshore," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said this week.

Republican candidates will highlight that poll finding in their campaigns in the months ahead, GOP aides said this week.

Democrats said the public blames the Bush administration for high gas prices.

"Yes, we think energy is going to be a big issue in the fall," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We think the American people side with us on getting independent of oil rather than trying to drill your way out of the problem."

Analyst Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report said both sides are unlikely to capitulate because "neither party believes that a compromise is in its best interest, so that it has to compromise."

"The Republicans believe that energy is their winning issue," Rothenberg said, noting that the GOP has major weaknesses when it comes to the economy and the war in Iraq. "They've decided that this is the issue that they can portray the Democrats as not really interested in lowering energy prices, getting more energy into the system.

"Democrats on the other hand don't see it as a fundamental weakness," he said. "They don't think it's a big loser for them. They think the election is about other things, and they believe they have neutralized the Republican attacks by portraying the Republicans as being in the pocket of Big Oil."

But Bill Schneider, a CNN senior political analyst, said that the intransigence could backfire on both parties.

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"This is what enrages voters about Washington. Voters say, 'Do something, anything that will solve the problem,' " Schneider said. "But each side insists that the other side's solution won't really solve the problem. So they block it. And nothing happens.

"Politicians only care about which side gets more of the blame: 'We had a solution, but they blocked it. So it's their fault,' " Schneider said.

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