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Oil fight could trigger a federal shutdown
San Francisco Chronicle


August 11, 2008

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, who've been hounding Speaker Nancy Pelosi for weeks over her refusal to allow a vote on new domestic oil drilling, are plotting a high-stakes confrontation this fall that could shut down the federal government.

After Congress returns Sept. 8, it will have to pass a temporary measure to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30. Democrats are likely to include in the measure an extension of the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling, which would otherwise expire at the end of September.

GOP lawmakers warn they may try to block the measure -- or pressure President Bush to veto it -- if Democrats won't allow the drilling ban to lapse. If neither side gives in, it would force at least a temporary shutdown of the government.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led Republicans during the last government shutdown in 1995 that ended up bruising his party's image, said he thinks Republicans should force the showdown. He believes that the public, frustrated with high gas prices, would side with Republicans in demanding more oil exploration.

Democrats are skeptical that GOP leaders really want to risk a shutdown which, if it's anything like the weeks-long closure in 1995, could lead to the disruption of government-related services, including access to national parks, passport offices, veterans' benefits and government-backed home loans.

"So Republicans are going to tell seniors, 'You're being squeezed by high gas prices and high grocery prices and now we're going to cut off your Social Security checks?' " said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' campaign arm. "It doesn't make sense."

Republicans argue that this time around it would be easier to pin the blame on Democrats. For one thing, Democrats now control both chambers of Congress. The GOP would portray Democrats as having sparked the face-off by including the ban on offshore drilling -- and a similar ban on oil shale development, which is also set to expire -- into the spending measure.

Asked if the GOP plans to shut down the government, House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., replied, "That's going to be up to the Democrats."

Blocking the bill may be easier said than done. In the House, Democrats have the numbers to pass the spending measure easily, unless a big group of pro-drilling Democrats breaks ranks. The GOP might have better luck in the Senate, where Democrats have a 51-49 advantage -- although a vote to shutter the government could be a tough one for senators in tight races.

Bush could also provoke the shutdown by vetoing the bill if it included the two drilling bans. The White House is, for now, staying mum on the idea.

The Senate's top Democratic and Republican leaders have agreed to an energy summit when Congress returns for a three-week session.


E-mail Zachary Coile at zcoile(at)
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