WASHINGTON — A plan to lift the ban on coastal drilling is stalled on Capitol Hill, for one simple reason: A Californian who opposes President Bush's proposal is calling the shots in the House of Representatives.
Despite growing public support for ending the ban, even in California, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she won't allow a vote.
"I have no plans to do so," Pelosi said Thursday.
It's an example of the vast power placed in the office of the speaker, who sets the agenda for the 435-member House. Members can force a vote if enough of them sign a petition, but that's a rarity because it requires rank-and-file Democrats to line up against their boss.
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In this case, Pelosi is going against a rising tide of public opinion. Faced with rapidly increasing gasoline prices, 73 percent of Americans now favor offshore drilling, according to a poll conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corp.
Support is even growing in California, where a majority of residents have long supported the ban. A new Field Poll survey shows that just 51 percent now favor the ban, compared with 56 percent in 2005.
Pelosi made her remarks in a wide-ranging interview with CNN, in which she grabbed headlines for saying Bush was "a total failure" who had lost credibility with Americans on his handling of the war, the economy and energy issues. She said Congress has been forced "to sweep up after his mess over and over and over again."
Pelosi's Democratic colleagues in California are happy that the president's drilling plan is going nowhere, at least for now.
"When Americans go to the pump and are faced with gas prices well over $4 a gallon, it may be tempting to believe that lifting the ban on offshore drilling would bring immediate relief," Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said Friday. But she said Congress "cannot make rash decisions that will leave a legacy of irresponsible energy policy for our children and grandchildren to inherit."
Pelosi and other Californians have long cited the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara as the main reason for their opposition to drilling. The president's plan is opposed by California's three top leaders: Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer, who heads the Senate environment committee, and Dianne Feinstein.
"Californians have learned the hard way how much damage — environmental and economic — can be caused by a major oil spill," Feinstein said.
But Pelosi may be hard-pressed to stand firm against lifting the moratorium. She's under heavy pressure from House Republicans, who have been unrelenting in their political attacks against the speaker, blaming her for the record gasoline prices.
On Friday, House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio called on Pelosi to stop "ignoring the calls of the American people." He said he would lead a delegation of 10 House Republicans on an "American energy tour" to Colorado and Alaska this weekend to put a spotlight on the refusal of Democratic leaders to allow drilling in Alaska and elsewhere.
The congressional ban on offshore drilling has been in effect since 1981, but Congress must renew it each year. The issue could come to a head again in September, though Pelosi could make it tougher for opponents to kill the ban if she includes it in an omnibus spending bill that may be required to keep the government operating.
Acknowledging her ability to influence decision-making, Pelosi said in the CNN interview that she gets to operate differently than her Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid must reach out to Republicans to muster 60 votes — enough to stop a filibuster — to get anything done.
"In the House, the power rests in the speaker, the power of recognition, of setting the agenda. . . . Very different rules," Pelosi said.