WASHINGTON -- When Congress returns this week from its summer break, the calendar likely will force Democratic leaders to do what Republican lawmakers have so far failed to make them do:
Vote on lifting the 1982 ban on expanded offshore oil and natural gas drilling.
The congressional drilling moratorium, first enacted by a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-ruled Senate under President Reagan, must be renewed each year by Sept. 30 in order to stay in effect.
Despite recent price drops, the increased cost of gasoline is compelling constituents to pressure Congress to end the drilling prohibition.
"A lot of people are joining in the cry, 'Drill here and drill now,'" said Rep. John Spratt, a York Democrat and the House Budget Committee chairman. "I haven't polled it, but I do hear it in e-mails and in telephone calls."
At the same time, Spratt noted, many "conservative Republicans from Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head" consider South Carolina's storied beaches "prized assets" that need protection.
"They don't want to do anything that would jeopardize the beaches or the tourism industry that the beaches enable," Spratt said.
President Bush warned Saturday morning that Democratic congressional leaders risk incurring voters' wrath this fall if they don't lift the drilling ban and take other steps to increase domestic energy production.
"If members of Congress do not support the American people at the gas pump, then they should not expect the American people to support them at the ballot box," he said.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, along with GOP Rep. Joe Wilson, recently dropped their longstanding opposition to oil exploration off the state's coast.
Spratt said he's encouraged by Graham's participation in a new "Gang of Ten" initiative by Republican and Democratic senators seeking common ground on comprehensive energy legislation.
Among other tradeoffs, the group is weighing an end to Democratic opposition to expanding drilling in exchange for Republican agreement to curtail tax breaks for oil companies.
President Bush this year lifted the executive drilling ban his father extended in 1990. But lawmakers must end the congressional moratorium in order for energy exploration to move beyond much of the Gulf of Mexico and a small part of the Southern California coast.
While their peers trolled for votes back home and enjoyed a respite from Washington, at least 135 GOP lawmakers trekked back and forth to the nation's capital to stage what their leaders called a "Historic, Nationwide Energy Protest."
Reps. Gresham Barrett, Joe Wilson and Henry Brown were among the protesters who spoke to empty galleries on the half-darkened floor of a House chamber that was officially out of session.
Democrats -- and a few Republicans -- ridiculed the protest as partisan gamesmanship aimed at embarrassing Democrats entering the fall election campaigns.
"After nearly eight years of House Republicans rubber-stamping policies of the oil men in the White House ... Americans are suffering under over-$4-a-gallon gas," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said last month.
"Not only do these Republicans refuse to take responsibility for the failed energy policies of the past, but they are pushing the same old 'drill only' plan that will do nothing to bring down gas prices in the near term," said Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat.
Barrett, a Westminster Republican with gubernatorial ambitions, made three trips to Washington and spoke five times on the House floor.
"In my district, they're mad," Barrett said Aug. 25. "And not only are they mad, they're hurting."
Barrett vehemently denied that the GOP protest was mere grandstanding.
"I don't think you can call (speaking out on) the most important issue of our lifetime a publicity stunt," he said.
Rep. Bob Inglis was the only House Republican from South Carolina who didn't join the GOP protest, which he pointed out would have cost taxpayers $800 for each trip to Washington.
"I'm very interested in gathering momentum for action on energy," Inglis said. "My calculus was I could have greater impact toward that end by speaking to audiences in South Carolina than by having my staff come over and cheer me while I'm speaking on the House floor without a microphone."
Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, helped organize the GOP protest as the No. 3 Republican House leader.
A Putnam spokesman, Mike Ricci, said that when the lawmakers weren't speaking on the House floor or waiting their turn, they went outside the chamber and brought back surprised tourists for special tours.
"It is a bit of a thrill for some of the tourists," Ricci said.
Inglis, who noted that he's been calling for urgent and sweeping energy legislation since his return to Congress in 2005, decided his time would be better spent holding five district forums titled "Breaking Free: The Inevitable Fight for America's Energy Freedom."
More than 75 Upstate business leaders and constituents attended the last forum Aug. 26 to hear Anne Korin, head of the Set America Free Coalition.
The group of "strange bedfellows" -- in Inglis' words -- brings together evangelicals and environmentalists, conservatives and liberals, and other frequent political foes who view energy independence as the country's top national security priority.
"We will fight China in the Middle East (over oil supplies) if we don't get off this trajectory," Inglis said. "That's a national security risk."
Republicans must do far more than repeat the new GOP talking point of "all of the above" and work with Democrats to get much greater funding for developing alternative fuels and making energy-efficient vehicles, Inglis said.
"It's a fabulous opportunity," Inglis said. "We can break free of our addiction to oil, clean up the air and create jobs in South Carolina and other places. It's the triple play of this new American Century."
The House Republican protesters alternated between promising bipartisanship and blaming Democrats for the energy crisis.
"Let's quit the partisanship," Barrett said. "This is not a Republican Party problem, guys, this is not a Democratic problem. This is an American problem."
Barrett said he will soon ask Clyburn and Spratt to support a bill he's crafting to increase incentives and remove barriers for new nuclear power plants.
Brown, a Hanahan Republican who represents three-quarters of the South Carolina coast, was less optimistic about the chances of working with Democrats.
"We just can't get the Democrats to get serious about addressing the serious energy problems we've got," he said.
Rep. Joe Wilson, a Lexington Republican, was sharper still.
"It is unconscionable that House Democrats remain on vacation while there are substantial and vital steps we can take to address this energy crisis," he said.
Spratt, who co-chairs the House Nuclear Energy Caucus, said he has no problems with greater nuclear power production in South Carolina, where it already accounts for half of all electric power, and the rest of the nation.
Spratt said he prefers to address the drilling ban and nuclear power as part of broader legislation that would protect the environment and spend far more on finding new energy sources.
"What we've done so far to develop alternative fuels is a pittance," Spratt said.
Spratt, though, acknowledged that the Sept. 30 expiration of the drilling ban and increased political pressure might lead to a vote in the House on lifting the moratorium.
And, Spratt conceded, that vote could be close.
"If you add the oil-patch Democrats (from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and other oil-producing states) to the Republicans, this becomes a very near thing," Spratt said.
Gas prices down, but not by much
The average price of gasoline in South Carolina is lower than it was July 31, when Congress adjourned for the summer. But it is still substantially higher than a year ago.
Friday, Sept. 5: $3.50 per gallon
July 31: $3.89
Sept. 5, 2007: $2.59
McClatchy Newspapers 2008