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House Expected to Vote on Offshore Drilling Bill Tuesday

Acceding to the wishes of the energy industry and consumers, House Republicans on Friday said they planned to take the Senate's narrower offshore drilling legislation to the floor for a vote Tuesday. This ends months of divisive negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers over how to reconcile their vastly different bills that seek to open more of the offshore to oil and natural gas drilling.

The offshore bill is expected to be brought to the House floor under suspension rules, requiring a two-thirds majority for passage, according to Congressional Quarterly Today Midday Update. Republicans believe there is enough House support to secure passage, but if necessary they will bring the bill to the floor again under a closed rule later in the week, it said. Under a closed rule, the bill would need a simple majority vote to pass.

"I believe it will pass. The question is whether we will get it through under suspension [rules] or whether we will have to be a bit more creative," said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Rep. John Peterson (R-PA), who co-authored the broader House drilling bill. The bill "received a super-majority vote in the Senate [in late July]. There's every reason to believe it can do the same thing in the House."

The House will have to move quickly on the offshore bill, given that Congress adjourns on Dec. 8 for the year.

House lawmakers will be voting on S. 3711 that would make 8.3 million acres in the Lease Sale 181 area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in a tract south of Lease Sale 181 available for oil and leasing. The mostly Republican-crafted bill also would provide protections (a minimum of a 125-mile, no-drill buffer zone) for Florida and would give four Gulf coastal states a major share (37.5%) of the federal royalties from leasing to be used in restoring their receding coastal areas.

The more comprehensive House measure (HR 4761), passed last June, sought to open up a greater swath of the federal Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) that has been closed to producers, but that measure faced slim odds in the lame-duck Congress. The bill would have given states bordering the Pacific and East Coasts the option to allow oil and gas drilling within 100 miles of their shorelines.

Many in the energy industry initially backed the House OCS version, but they later put their support behind the Senate offshore measure, realizing that it either was going to be the Senate version or nothing in 2006.

Negotiations to reconcile the House and Senate OCS drilling bills have been deadlocked for months. Senate leaders wanted the House to accept their narrower OCS bill in place of the more expansive House offshore measure, but House leaders repeatedly resisted the overture. But that was before the November mid-elections that dramatically changed the political landscape in Washington.

House Republican leaders were expected to be a bit more receptive to the Senate's limited OCS version, particularly given the defeat of Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), a major architect of the House OCS bill, in the November elections.

"While I don't believe S. 3711 represents the answer to our country's worsening supply situation and resulting record-breaking prices for consumers and industrial users, I do believe it's another step toward that ultimate and very important national goal," said Peterson.

"If nothing else...the Senate bill does establish a worthwhile precedent upon which we will continue to improve next Congress, while at the same time freeing up a modest amount of natural gas," he noted.

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