Politics & Government

Lawmakers buck party bases on drilling, bailout

An oil pump pumps oil from the ground in 2002.
An oil pump pumps oil from the ground in 2002. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — In a dazzlingly short span of days, Democrats and Republicans each have caved on a core issue.

Bowing to pressure by Republicans, Democratic congressional leaders agreed this week to let the 26-year-old congressional ban on offshore oil- and natural-gas drilling expire Tuesday, when the federal fiscal year ends.

The move has angered environmentalists, a key constituency for Democrats.

"The environmental community is united in its opposition to drilling," said Anna Aurilio, who heads the Washington office of Environment America, which represents conservation groups in 26 states. "There is no need to open our coasts to drilling."

At the same time, President Bush, Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Republican congressional leaders are pushing their party peers to pass a massive financial-services bailout that would dwarf any government program since the New Deal.

That prospect is infuriating fiscal conservatives and small-government activists who underpin the Republican Party.

"This may be your last chance to protect taxpayers and our economy from what could be the greatest fiscal policy fiasco in our nation's history," Pete Sepp, a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union, a Washington group that tracks federal spending, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

With elections less than six weeks away, is this any way for senators and representatives to treat their parties' most fervent loyalists?

Political analysts say lawmakers are being buffeted by events largely beyond their control.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," said Andrew Busch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Democrats are getting pushed hard on drilling because people really don't like paying $4 a gallon for gasoline," Busch said. "And Republicans are getting pushed hard because however much they may dislike this bailout, it's not clear that there's any alternative other than letting the financial system spin into further disaster."

Permitting expanded drilling is a more dramatic turnaround for Democrats than allowing some form of financial rescue is for Republicans, Busch said.

"At very few points has the Bush administration been very interested in fiscal restraint," he said. "This (bailout) has a bigger price tag, and it's a more visible issue, but it's just an exaggerated version of how Republicans in Congress have been accommodating themselves to Bush for the duration of his presidency."

Republican fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate have tried to stop or at least rein in the $700 billion rescue package.

"This massive bailout is not a solution," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. "It is financial socialism, and it's un-American."

But aides to some of the fiscal hawks who oppose the bailout concede that it likely will pass in some form, though with restrictions added by lawmakers such as increased congressional oversight and compensation limits for the executives of firms helped by the program.

Momentum to approve at least the outline of a deal gained speed after Bush addressed the nation Wednesday evening and joined an extraordinary meeting Thursday afternoon of congressional leaders from both parties and their presidential candidates.

McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, stopped campaigning and returned to Washington to attend the political summit.

Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution analyst who has written extensively on Congress and elections, said several factors compelled the Democrats' shift on drilling:

_ High gas prices are a core pocketbook issue that isn't hard to understand.

"This is not (Federal Reserve Chairman) Ben Bernanke trying to explain the financial crisis," Binder said. "This is an issue voters have been complaining about pretty vocally for several months."

_ Now that they control Congress, Democrats want to demonstrate that they can act decisively and take on real problems.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "understands the (positive) political ramifications of showing that Democrats can govern and be responsive to big issues," Binder said.

_ Moving toward the center is the price of success. Many of the Democratic lawmakers elected in 2006 or who will be elected in November are more pragmatic than many senior members.

"As the Democratic caucus gets larger, you're going to have more moderates and more ideological disagreement in that party," Binder said.

Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat who's chairman of the House Budget Committee, said he doesn't fear political fallout from constituents over lifting the drilling ban.

"My environmental record is pretty strong to start with, and one exceptional vote is not going to mar the record," Spratt said.

Pelosi, Spratt said, "was trying to make the best out of a bad hand that was dealt her." She oversaw an energy bill, passed by the House last week, which along with the green light for drilling has good provisions such as directing oil and gas royalties to pay for development of renewable energy sources, he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican up for re-election in November, said he's well aware that his support for the bailout package will anger some of his many conservative constituents.

"Taxpayers should be upset, but it's not my job to just echo people being mad," Graham said. "I believe that the problem being described is real, dramatic and dire. We don't have the luxury of kicking this can down the road like we did with immigration and Social Security reforms."

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