(CNSNews.com) -House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CNSNews.com on Wednesday that restoring the ban on new offshore oil drilling leases “will be a top priority for discussion next year” if the Democrats retain control of Congress.
The congressional Democratic leadership decided this week not to try to extend the ban, which they might have attempted by including it in the continuing resolution that passed the House today in order to keep the government funded past the end of the fiscal year, which comes to a close on September 30.
The existing ban on selling new offshore oil drilling leases is part of the fiscal 2008 Interior Department appropriation. When that appropriation expires on September 30, so does the drilling ban.
“I am sure it will be a top priority for discussion next year,” Hoyer said when CNSNews.com asked him if Democrats would fight to restore the ban.
Republicans have targeted the ban since summertime, pointing to historically high gas prices as good reason to lift the ban that has been included in the Interior funding bill every year since fiscal 1982.
In July, President Bush rescinded an Executive Order that mirrored the congressional ban in prohibiting new offshore oil drilling leases. During the August congressional recess, Republicans held frequent press conferences in Washington to criticize the Democratic leadership for leaving town not having held a vote on allowing new offshore oil drilling.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans gathered at a press conference at the Capitol to celebrate what they consider a victory on drilling. In their view, congressional Democrats bowed under pressure to public opinion by choosing to allow the ban to expire.
“We have gathered to celebrate and to thank the American people for literally sweeping over Congress with public opinion in demanding this result,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Republicans also warned that the fight is not over, and predicted that Democrats would try to restore the ban.
“Oh yes,” Sen. James Inhofe (D-Okla.) told CNSNews.com when asked if he expected Democrats to attempt to restore the ban. “I would expect them to try to restore the moratoria but that’s why its so important to get the word out to the American people that, yes, this is a great thing, but it makes it so much worse for Democrats if the people of America find out that they are doing this only to get by in the elections then turn around and cut off the supply.”
CNSNews.com reported on Monday that congressional Democrats were considering allowing the ban to expire in the hopes that they could restore it next year with a stronger majority in Congress or a president in the White House. (See article: http://www.cnsnews.com/public/content/article.aspx?RsrcID=36204 )
McConnell said he believes that restoring the ban after the elections would not be a ‘responsible use of democracy.’
“One cautionary note,” said McConnell. “I get the impression from listening to the majority that it is their intent to restore these moratoria at a later time. We think any effort to thumb your nose at public opinion as soon as the election takes place is not being very responsible with our democracy.”
Despite Republican predictions that Obama would attempt to restore the ban if elected president, Hoyer told CNSNews.com that he is unsure how Obama will decide to act on the ban.
“I have not talked to Sen. Obama and I do not know what his plan is, but I would think he has indicated that he understands that energy independence is very important to this country therefore I would expect him to proceed in a way that facilitates that,” said Hoyer. “How that will play out I don’t know, and don’t want to speculate.”
If the ban does expire on Tuesday, as expected, most U.S. waters 3 miles or more off the beach will be legally eligible for federal offshore oil drilling leases.
Officials from the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees federal offshore leases, told CNSNews.com on Monday that even without the ban other existing laws and regulations mean it will take at least 5 years before new leases are actually issued.