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House Democratic leaders continued to oppose opening new land for oil drilling Wednesday amid mounting pressure from the public and under a steady assault from Republicans and even some of their own Members. At the same time, they started working on a new package aimed at increasing domestic production.

But House Democrats this week did proclaim their support for drilling in approved areas, while refusing to open new areas for exploration.

Instead, Democrats plan to craft a pro-drilling package aimed at spurring development on 20 million acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve already set aside for drilling but not yet leased and pairing that with “use it or lose it” legislation aimed at spurring drilling on the 68 million acres around the country already leased, a Democratic leadership aide said.

There also may be a few other smaller items aimed at boosting domestic production but not opening more acres, the aide said.

Democrats also plan to press President Bush to sell off oil reserves while attacking financial speculators for driving up oil prices.

House Democrats have held “meeting after meeting after meeting” on the issue, the aide said.

But leadership has come under increasing pressure from Members who say more offshore drilling should be part of the mix.

“I think that the right formula is to give the states the option to opt in,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality.

“It would be well offshore, far enough out that it ought to give some comfort,” he said. States such as Virginia ought to be able to decide whether to allow such drilling and pocket half of the proceeds, he said.

“If California and Florida don’t want it, fine,” he said. “I think that approach makes eminent sense. It’s good policy and good politics.”

Boucher said he has been inundated in his district with support for more drilling as gas prices soar. He said it’s causing distress because his rural district includes lots of truck and SUV drivers and relatively low incomes.

“They are looking for solid answers,” he said.

The nonstop strategy sessions reflect how gas prices have come to dominate the Congressional agenda, with leaders signaling that appropriations bills may be mothballed in the meantime amid a dispute between House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) on bringing up the Interior bill — and oil drilling amendments — up for a vote in committee.

Democrats scuttled talk of bringing up the military construction bill this week and might not bring up any bills given that it would provide Republicans with an opportunity for endless amendments, including ones on oil drilling that some Democrats would rather avoid.

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