WASHINGTON -- Jittery about voters' sour mood over high gasoline prices less than six months before congressional elections, the Republican-controlled House passed an old favorite yesterday: legislation seeking to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
But House Republicans wanted to return to their districts for Memorial Day able to say they had acted on energy legislation before the summer vacation season begins.
"It's an election year, isn't it?" remarked Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat.
The drilling measure is the first in a series of energy proposals expected to come before Congress in coming weeks, now that pump prices have become a campaign issue in the battle for control of Congress this year.
Both parties have stepped up efforts to highlight their differences on energy policy.
During the debate yesterday, Republicans accused Democrats of opposing efforts to increase domestic fuel supplies.
"Had President Clinton and the Democrats in Congress not blocked exploration in ANWR 10 years ago, a greater supply of American oil could have been available today," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, argued, citing Clinton's 1995 veto of a budget bill that included a drilling proposal.
Democrats portrayed the Arctic drilling measure as a sop to Big Oil that would endanger an environmental treasure.
"Everyone knows this bill is dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat. "If the Republicans are serious about energy security, they would offer up real solutions - like increasing alternative fuels and making our cars and light trucks more fuel-efficient."
GOP leaders were eager to put Democrats on the record in advance of the fall elections, even though 30 Republicans joined 170 Democrats and one independent in opposing the drilling.
Although the House has previously voted to authorize drilling in the refuge, Republican leaders predicted that with gas prices now around $3 a gallon, voters would pay closer attention to the vote.
"This is about the law of supply and demand," said Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican. "By increasing oil supply here in the U.S., we can impact rising energy costs in the long run and decrease our dependency on foreign sources of energy."
But drilling opponents contended that it would take years for Arctic oil to reach the market, and that even then, it would have only a negligible impact on prices.
Opening a portion of the 19.6-million-acre refuge in Alaska's northeast corner to energy exploration has long been among the nation's most contentious environmental issues.
A Bush priority
President Bush has pushed for allowing the drilling since taking office, calling it critical to national security and economic growth.
Proponents have repeatedly tried to pass the drilling measure, attaching it to budget and defense bills and seeking to entice more lawmakers to vote for it by offering to use government royalties from energy production for such things as home-heating subsidies and aid to the steel industries.
Federal estimates say the equivalent of 10 billion barrels of oil lies beneath the refuge's tundra, though opponents argue that only about 3 billion barrels are economically recoverable. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day.
Many Democrats and some Republicans advocated greater conservation measures, such as tougher miles-per-gallon rules for cars.
"Astonishingly, this Congress has not voted on a single conservation measure since gasoline hit $3 a gallon," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican.
But Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican who is the House Resources Committee chairman and the drilling measure's chief sponsor, ridiculed Democrats for promoting energy-saving technology without considering the immediate need to produce more domestic oil.
"Your response to everything has been 'no,'" he said. "You've got this pie in the sky [idea] that we're going to invent a 100-mile-per-gallon carburetor and all of a sudden our problems are going to go away."
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.