WASHINGTON — Succumbing to intense political pressure, Democratic leaders in Congress intend to end a 27-year ban on coastal drilling on Sept. 30, but some Californians say it will be only a temporary defeat.
The decision marks a major win for President Bush and congressional Republicans, who have fought for months to lift the ban.
"I think it's awful," said California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. "This battle is not over. We will come back and fight another day — that's for sure."
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, home of the famous 1969 oil spill, said the issue of offshore drilling became "a political football, caught up in election-year politics," and that backers of the ban might be in a better position in 2009.
"While I am very disappointed in the final outcome of this issue, I know that Congress will revisit it next year," Capps said. "Hopefully, with a new president, we can negotiate a compromise that respects the need to protect coastal states and puts our country on a path to a clean energy future."
House Republicans were jubilant.
"The capitulation by Democrats ... is a big victory for Americans struggling with record gasoline prices," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. He said Democratic leaders had blocked Republican efforts to lift the ban until "they realized they could not defy the will of the American people any longer."
Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River, an opponent of the ban, said a turning point in the debate came last month, when the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to register its opposition to the ban. Environmentalists had long cited the huge Santa Barbara spill, which resulted in dead dolphins, seals and birds on the beaches, as a prime reason to oppose drilling.
"When the Board of Supervisors in Santa Barbara changed their position and voted for offshore drilling, it really knocked a hole in the argument that has been made for many, many years," Lungren said. "It was certainly something that was important to the dynamic of the debate in California, and back here."
Lifting the federal ban will leave the issue to states, but any drilling off the California coast would still face an uphill battle. Citing possible environmental damage to the state's coastline, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to oppose drilling, along with California's two Democratic senators.
With only four months remaining in the Bush presidency, the decision effectively puts the issue in the hands of voters and the next administration. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is an ardent backer of offshore drilling, while Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has said he would allow some coastal drilling but only as part of a broader energy package.
Bush had pushed hard to end the ban, first approved by Congress in 1981, as a way to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. The issue quickly gained traction when gasoline prices soared over $4 a gallon and Republicans seized on what they regarded as a winning campaign issue. National polls showed overwhelming support for offshore drilling, and public opinion changed dramatically even in California, where a poll found that a majority of voters now want to end the ban.
Democrats found themselves backpedaling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, a longtime backer of the ban, first called Bush's plan a "hoax" and vowed to block a vote. Later, she reversed course, saying she would allow members to vote. And House Democrats finally surrendered late Monday when they decided to drop a provision continuing the ban from a stopgap spending bill that would allow the government to continue functioning after Congress adjourns for the year.
Democrats said they had little choice because the president was threatening to veto the spending bill.
"I am disappointed that Democrats do not have a veto-proof majority to keep the drilling moratorium in place," said Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento. "If we repealed the offshore drilling ban today, we would not see a real impact on prices until after 2030. This is not a solution to our energy crisis. The future of the ban will be decided by this year's election."
Capps said it became clear that Bush had no intention of working with Democrats and Republicans on a bipartisan compromise.
"His only concern was to deliver one more time for his favorite special interest, the oil and gas industry," said Capps.
Lungren said Republicans succeeded after spending months making their case "in response to this unbelievable run-up in the price" of gasoline.
"We stuck to a message. ... And the American people's judgment and change in position on this issue actually was heard in Washington, D.C.," he said. "And it was probably heard in our districts before it was heard in Washington, D.C."