In Congress, A Role Reversal On Energy

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Several members of the House of Representatives returned to the House floor today, despite the Congressional recess that began on Friday, to protest Congress’ failure to pass legislation combating high gas prices before beginning the month-long vacation. But they’re not from the party you might think.

The protesters, who took to the empty House floor this morning despite dimmed lights and switched-off microphones, are Republicans. They’re pushing for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to open a vote on allowing off-shore drilling, even though the Department of Energy has stated that opening the shoreline would have no effect on gas prices until 2030. Democrats show no sign of budging.

Normally, Congressional infighting would have ended there. But this is campaign season, so of course the president and the two senators seeking his office got pulled in.

Sen. Obama, perhaps concerned that McCain’s attack ad blaming high gas prices on the off-shore ban might stick, recently hedged on the issue, saying he would be open to lifting the ban as a compromise to get other energy initiatives passed. (This morning, he suggested tapping into U.S. oil reserves, an idea that has met opposition from Bush in the past.)

Republicans have been quick to pounce. Rep. Eric Cantor, who the McCain campaign is considering as a running mate, called on Obama to pressure Pelosi and other Dems to reconvene Congress to pass off-shore drilling legislation. Obama, caught between Democrats long opposed to off-shore drilling and Republicans eager to paint Obama as weak on energy, will have to act carefully.

McCain repeated Cantor’s call, even offering to come off the campaign trail. Obama responded quickly, offering to join in requesting Congress’ return if McCain would pledge “a $1,000 energy rebate and … a serious investment in renewable energy.”

But any such compromise between the candidates would likely be meaningless. Pelosi, whose involvement is necessary to bring the House to a vote, has vehemently opposed opening California’s coast for her entire career.

Even President Bush, strangely, reacted to a request by Republicans to force Congress to reconvene with a denial, though he has long pushed for off-shore drilling. Perhaps the political points his party might stand to gain against Obama are just worth more to him than battling fuel prices.

—Max Fisher

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