WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A partisan election-year battle over high gasoline prices and a Republican push to open more U.S. coastal waters and federal land to oil and gas drilling has brought work in the U.S. Senate to a halt.
Lawmakers are preparing to head off for a month-long break before gearing up for the November congressional and presidential elections. It appears the housing rescue bill signed by President George W. Bush on Wednesday might be the last significant piece of legislation from the current Congress, says Paul Light of New York University’s Center for the Study of Congress.
“There is always a slowdown in the eighth year of a two-term presidency,” Light said. “Both parties believe their candidate will win and they don’t want to do anything that will embarrass their candidate.”
Both presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, are senators and would not relish having to cast difficult votes in the run-up to the election.
Polls show Democrats stand a good chance of winning the White House and strengthening their control of Congress in November, giving them little incentive to give in to Republican demands for a vote on opening up more U.S. coastal waters and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
Democrats argue that oil companies want access to these environmentally sensitive areas before Bush leaves the White House in January. They counter that the companies should work the millions of acres they already lease from the federal government.
With high gasoline prices straining family budgets, Republicans feel the oil drilling issue gives them some traction heading into the November elections. They have been blocking the Senate from taking up other legislation until they get a drilling vote.
In two procedural votes on Wednesday, Republicans blocked bids to advance to a media protection bill and another bill that would provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for alternative energy sources as well shield millions of middle income taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax.
The Senate standstill means those bills may never make it to Bush’s desk.
Earlier this week Republicans blocked an effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to pass a package of 35 bills that enjoy broad bipartisan support. That legislation included provisions that would aid medical research, help crack down against child pornography and advance other popular measures.
The Senate legislative blockage is frustrating a number of lawmakers. The majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives says it would be nice to see movement in the Senate.
“The Senate, as you’ve noticed, doesn’t act real quickly on things,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. “They talk about a lot of things, but they haven’t really been a cornucopia of legislation coming across to us.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, thinks he knows how to fix the problem. In a Senate speech he said the upper body was “constipated” and could use a good dose of laxatives.
“The Senate needs to function just like our intestinal system functions,” Grassley advised.
Editing by Eric Walsh