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A Three-Week Storm Brews

Fresh off the two parties’ national conventions, Republicans and Democrats are headed for a collision on Capitol Hill with just three weeks left to decide the fate of the ban on offshore drilling, the federal budget, tax-cut extensions and another stimulus package.

Partisan tensions that have ratcheted up dramatically will make compromise all the more difficult as each side tries to position for the November elections, with the potential for the first government shutdown in more than a decade.

And Congress is way behind schedule, with the appropriations process brought nearly to a halt as Democrats sought for months to avoid politically explosive votes on oil drilling.

House Democrats hope to quickly pass the Defense spending bill as well as a $50 billion stimulus package including unemployment benefits, food stamps, infrastructure spending and energy assistance for the poor.

There also will be funding for the Republic of Georgia and disaster relief for the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and perhaps parts of the East Coast, depending on hurricane damage.

Democrats hope to break a logjam on tax cut extensions and may make another run at passing an expansion of children’s health insurance.

But everything could end up in stalemate if Democrats and Republicans fail to hammer out a deal on energy.

That’s because the offshore drilling ban is set to expire Sept. 30, and some Republicans are urging President Bush to veto any bill keeping the ban in place — a political “nuclear” option that could spark a government shutdown with both sides scrambling to blame the other.

“We have a lot of work to be done in September, and we hope Republicans will cooperate with us to get it done, whether it is economic stimulus, a comprehensive energy package or disaster relief,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It’s up to the Republicans how they’re going to play it. … We’re not going to shut down the government,” he said, adding that GOP talk of such a move was “irresponsible.”

But House conservatives have rounded up the votes to sustain a presidential veto of any spending bill that extends the drilling ban, said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

“Nobody wants to shut down the government; I do not want to shut down the government,” Hensarling said. But he said Democrats should not be allowed to extend the drilling ban without a separate vote.

“It ought to stand on its own,” he said, adding that if Democrats try to extend the ban via a continuing resolution, it would be “an insult to the American people and they’ll see it for what it is.”

It’s far from clear what Bush will do, nor is it a sure thing that Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could pass a bill that extends the drilling ban with so many of their Members under intense pressure to back drilling.

However, Reid hopes to avoid a Senate fight over offshore drilling on the CR by allowing votes on the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 10” energy proposal, which relies heavily on new drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf to boost domestic oil production. Reid has yet to decide whether to bring up a long-stalled oil markets speculation bill with the bipartisan plan as an amendment or to bring up the gang’s bill by itself, a senior Senate Democratic aide said. That debate could take place next week, according to the aide.

Pelosi is expected to unveil her energy package, including some limited offshore drilling tied to items such as renewable electricity mandates and shifting tax breaks from oil companies to renewable power, while Senate Democrats appear to be moving toward a compromise energy package of their own.

House Democrats say Republicans will get an opportunity to show whether they are beholden to oil companies and stuck in a “drill only” mode or whether they will back a comprehensive package.

“I think this will put to the test the claims of our Republican opponents that they want a comprehensive energy package,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said. “I think that they’ve decided for political purposes that they’d rather obstruct the process.”

But Republicans point to the months of Democratic maneuvers that blocked drilling votes and predict more of the same.

“This is a pure political ploy trying to appease the public,” Hensarling said. “I’ll bet you a gallon of gas that there will be no meaningful Republican amendments allowed and we’ll get a 200- to 400-page bill with 24 hours notice. Maybe [Pelosi] will surprise me.”

House Republicans will continue to demand a vote on their energy package, which has oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as its centerpiece, and are fired up after five weeks of protests on the House floor, chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill” at the Republican National Convention and polls showing large majorities favoring an expansion of drilling. The Republican plan includes funding for renewables, but GOP leaders say they won’t back anything that raises taxes on oil companies or doesn’t include significant new drilling.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that in his travels to districts across the country, all of the party’s candidates are on message on the drilling issue. Blunt also called a lame-duck session inevitable and said it would be “irresponsible” to simply kick the can into next year.

But Democrats are prepared to do so, believing that if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is elected president, he will sign a more generous package of domestic spending. Both House and Senate Democratic aides continue to insist that they will not return after adjourning in three weeks for the election.

Republicans also have continued to argue against additional spending in a stimulus package, preferring tax cuts, if anything.

Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Blunt, said the stimulus package wasn’t a serious effort at passing legislation. “It’s a spending boondoggle filled with goodies for their special interests,” she said. “They are going to try and jam us and shove it down our throats, but the American people are going to see it for the charade it is.”

But if the House passes the measure, the Senate is likely to take it up the week of Sept. 22, the senior Senate Democratic aide said. This week the Senate is scheduled to take another run at the Defense Department authorization bill, which was filibustered in July. If Reid cannot secure the 60 votes needed to bring the DOD measure up, he may try to move to the military construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill this week, the aide said.

Additionally, Senate Democrats said they will attempt to deal with the thorny issue of tax extenders as part of the CR, but a solution for how to bridge the divide between Senate Republicans who don’t want to pay for the extensions and House Blue Dog Democrats who do want offsets has bedeviled the chamber for months.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.