By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell said Monday he expects a wall of Republican
opposition this week to a Democratic energy bill, which could
doom hopes for quick passage of a measure that aims to clean up
offshore oil drilling industry practices.
The Senate is supposed to hold a test vote Wednesday on
competing plans by Democrats and Republicans to increase energy
company liability for economic damages from oil spills and take
other steps in the aftermath of BP's catastrophic
spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, McConnell was asked
whether he thought any Republicans would vote to allow debate
this week of the more sweeping Democratic bill.
"I hope not," McConnell responded, adding, "I think it is
not an appropriate response to the situation."
Without the 60 votes needed to formally begin debating the
energy legislation, action in Congress would slow following
Friday's passage in the House of Representatives of a similar
bill that focused on offshore drilling reforms.
Democrats would need at least a few Republican votes to get
beyond the Senate's 60-vote roadblock. The are 41 Republicans,
57 Democrats and two independent lawmakers in the Senate.
On Friday, the Senate is scheduled to begin a five-week
break. Before departing, it plans to confirm Elena Kagan to the
Supreme Court, leaving little time for a full-blown energy
debate McConnell said is normally a "multi-week" process.
"There wouldn't be time to deal with it (energy) this week
and (it'll) be punted until later in the session," McConnell
predicted, even if either version of the bill were to be
cleared for debate.
McConnell rattled off three major reasons for Republican
opposition: an oil company liability plan Democrats have put
forth that he argued would shut out smaller companies from Gulf
oil drilling, a new gasoline tax (an increase in fees for an
oil spill trust fund) and the absence of language to end
Obama's six-month drilling moratorium in the Gulf.
WANTS END TO DRILLING BAN
"If you look at this measure, it doesn't do anything about
the job-killing moratorium in the Gulf," McConnell said. That
temporary drilling ban, he added, "Is creating the same kind of
havoc, if not more havoc, than the spill itself."
Republicans want that moratorium, which would expire at the
end of November, to end immediately. The Obama administration
wants a few more months to look at deep-water drilling safety
problems that could have contributed to the BP disaster -- the
worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
Any energy bill that emerges from the Senate could become
the target for additional Democratic-backed legislation to
battle global warming later this year or possibly next year.
Support has been thin in the Senate for mandating
smokestack reductions of carbon dioxide, blamed for global
warming, despite House passage last year of such a bill.
Many Democrats are worried climate change legislation,
which would raise utility bills, would be used against them by
Republicans in November's congressional elections.
In the absence of final climate control legislation from
Congress, Obama's Environmental Protection Agency early next
year could go ahead with new carbon-reduction regulations.
Asked about that, McConnell said: "For the administration
to take on a national energy tax in effect by regulation is
Democrats say it is reckless not to impose new restrictions
on carbon pollution many scientists fear will lead to
dangerously high sea levels and increasingly severe weather.
McConnell said he'd prefer to reduce U.S. carbon emissions
by building new nuclear power plants, which emit little carbon
dioxide compared to coal-fired power plants.
"But if the president wants to unilaterally do that (impose
EPA regulations) going into his own reelection, it would make
my day," said McConnell, suggesting Republicans would slam
Obama over the issue in the 2012 presidential election.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)