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Democrats Pull Back on Drilling but Push Climate Bill

House Democratic leaders intensified calls Tuesday to put the brakes on expanded offshore drilling until there is more information about the catastrophic oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico but insisted that the incident will not snag efforts to complete a climate bill this year.

The politics of energy legislation have gotten more complicated since the explosion, particularly in the Senate, where a bill has yet to be introduced. Many Republicans — including chief GOP negotiator Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — would likely consider expanded drilling a nonnegotiable part of any bill they would support. Some Democrats — most notably Bill Nelson (Fla.) — have ruled out the possibility of supporting legislation expanding offshore drilling.

“Going forward, the consideration of offshore oil requires a complete reconsideration of what you do when the oil is in the water,” Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said.

“So it’s a question of prevention,” Miller said, adding that “after 10 years of self-regulation,” it is now apparent that offshore oil companies are not doing enough to invest in and ensure safety. Miller added that it is time “to pause to check to see whether or not we have a prevention system and a cleanup system that’s worthy of this century.”

But Miller, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized on Tuesday the importance of passing a climate bill this year and said the oil spill should not impede that effort.

“The two things can go forward: The energy bill can go forward and a critical re-analysis of our ability to prevent and clean up has to go forward,” Miller said.

Hoyer defended the administration’s response to the incident, calling it “very vigorous” and adding that President Barack Obama’s decision to suspend new drilling until more is known about the cause of the explosion was appropriate.

“It’s going to be very, very important for us to look closely at why this happened, why we were not able to contain it more quickly,” Hoyer said. “We all believe that we need to be energy-independent, but we also need to be safe in the way we go abut getting our energy.”

One of the questions that needs answering, Hoyer said, is why the emergency safety mechanism to prevent a massive spill failed. But in the meantime, Hoyer said it was important for an energy bill not to lose steam.

“Energy independence is still a vital issue for us,” Hoyer said. “We cannot be hostage … to those who sell us oil who may or may not care a lot about our security. … So it’s very, very critical that we continue to move ahead on energy independence. I think this spill makes that even more relevant, not less so.”

But Hoyer noted that the spill could complicate matters in the Senate.

“The Senate’s had difficulty dealing with an energy bill outside the advent of the spill,” he said. “I’m sure that it’s going to raise issues. … So we’ll see what happens.”

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