Back From Recess, Congress Is Under Pressure to Act on Energy, Economy

But in the shadow of the presidential campaign, compromises could be elusive.

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With Congress back to work on Monday for a shortened session, energy issues are high on the agenda. So is a Democratic push for a second economic stimulus package, a proposal that draws GOP opposition. With elections—and another recess—around the corner, the prospects for breakthroughs are uncertain.

In the House, energy measures are likely to be taken up quickly. But, despite heavy pressure from Republicans throughout the August recess, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California isn't budging from her refusal to allow an up-or-down vote on additional domestic drilling.

Aides say Pelosi is assembling comprehensive legislation and choosing from a menu of options. Possibilities include releasing a small portion of oil from the 700-million barrel national stockpile known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; expanding drilling in parts of Alaska where it already is permitted; requiring major oil companies to invest billions in clean energy sources; and opening portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for drilling.

"There's a number of options out there, but no final decisions have been made," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill says. Republicans want to expand offshore drilling, but one dismisses many of Pelosi's ideas as "failed policies of the past," some of which failed to attract sufficient support in votes earlier this year.

In the Senate, there appears to be growing consensus on an energy bill, though there's no certainty it will receive the 60 votes needed to pass.

The so-called Gang of 10, a bipartisan group that is trying to end an impasse over offshore drilling, has grown to 16 members, and several more senators will be on board before Congress returns, a Democratic aide says.

They're pushing what's called the New Energy Reform Act of 2008, intended to help transition the nation's motor vehicles to fuels other than gasoline and diesel. They also would expand offshore drilling to the eastern Gulf of Mexico and states off the Atlantic coast—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—provided it occurs 50 miles off shore and governors and state legislatures approve.

Another provision: a $2,400 consumer tax credit for people who buy hybrid vehicles or retrofit existing vehicles.

A leading figure in the Gang of 16, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, says the bill "puts everything on table—stronger conservation, more alternative fuels, and proposals for responsible offshore drilling."

On September 12, the Senate will stage a bipartisan energy summit. It likely will be held in one of the large Senate hearing rooms, though the location, witness list, and other details have not been firmed up. The summit could clear the way for debate and votes on the energy reform during the week of September 15.

Democrats are promoting a second stimulus package, with a possible $50 billion price tag, despite strong opposition from Republicans. Options include aid to state and local governments, or to the Gulf Coast region; infrastructure improvements; low-income heating assistance; energy rebates; more dollars for Medicaid; and even another round of tax rebate checks.

A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Michael Steel, says it's difficult to comment on a possible package, "given that at various times it's included every pork-barrel item on the Democrats' wish list."

Steel says a key way to stimulate the economy is to "increase the supply of American energy to bring down gas prices." He's touting a Boehner measure, the American Energy Act, to expand domestic oil and gas production, increase renewable energy sources, and bolster investments in alternative fuel, clean-coal technologies, and nuclear power. "Our goal is not simply a drilling bill," Steel says.

Neither chamber will have much time to work. The House is set to adjourn September 26; the Senate's date is up in the air.