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House will not consider plan to open Gulf to drilling

WASHINGTON—Apparently short of votes, House Republicans on Tuesday abruptly scrapped plans to consider opening a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

The bill is scheduled to come up for another vote Wednesday, either alone or as part of a package of tax breaks.

But Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who helped craft the legislation, warned that time was running out and said the Senate won't touch the bill if the House tinkers with it.

"Anytime you have to work within a time frame, it's a concern," Martinez said.

A spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, offered no details on why the vote was canceled.

Republicans needed a two-thirds vote to pass the measure without any amendments. Environmentalists hailed the canceled vote as a sign that there wasn't enough support to pass the legislation.

"Let's hope this is the end of Congress' fling with Big Oil and that we can make a fresh start to achieving true energy security with the new year and the new Congress," said Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club. Manuel has lobbied hard against the bill and has said he hopes a Democratic-led Congress will concentrate on energy efficiency and development of alternative fuels.

But others predicted passage of the bill this week.

"I'd be stunned and grossly disappointed" if sponsors can't pull together a majority vote to pass the bill, said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who has championed efforts to open the coastline to drilling.

The measure, which the Senate passed last summer, would open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling, which supporters say should increase a much-needed supply of natural gas.

The legislation gained the support of Florida's two senators because it would keep oil rigs at least 250 miles from the state's west coast and 125 miles off the Panhandle. It also provides a bigger buffer, Martinez said, than the federal government has provided in a similar drilling plan.

"There's going to be activity in the Gulf," Martinez said. "But the bill provides Florida with a better zone of protection. It's the very best for Florida at this point."

House Republicans earlier this year passed more controversial legislation that would have opened up most of the nation's coastline to offshore exploration unless state officials acted to stop it. The Senate refused to pass that plan, citing environmental and political concerns.

Backers in the House have had to stitch together an unusual coalition: Some House members have rejected the Senate version, saying they still want greater drilling. Industry groups have stepped up the pressure to pass something, and Peterson has said he plans to come back with bills to allow for expanded exploration.

Under the current bill, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas would gain millions of dollars in royalties, a provision controversial among other states and the Bush administration, which have argued that the money should stay with the federal government.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the legislation is critical to help with environmental restoration along the Gulf.

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(McClatchy correspondent Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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