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Senate Energy "gang" Grows To 20

The energy debate is close to hitting a tipping point, as both chambers are inching toward a bipartisan breakthrough that might let Democrats steal some of the fire away from the Republican message on oil drilling that dominated the summer break.

On Thursday afternoon, the leaders of a bipartisan Senate energy coalition known as the "Gang of 10" announced that their numbers had grown to 20, with Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) all signing on to a bill that would encourage state-by-state decisions on offshore drilling and authorize billions in conservation and alternative energy.

Republican leaders have balked at the $84 billion price tag, but the bill would be paid for by rolling back certain oil subsidies and tax loopholes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated a willingness to let this bipartisan package be debated in the Senate. With at 10 Republicans already publicly supporting the Senate "Gang of 20," if Democrats get behind the bill they'll achieve a filibuster-proof margin.

"America’s growing energy crisis demands immediate action," said Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), in a joint statement. "Our group of 20 is taking an approach that goes beyond the polarizing partisanship that has poisoned Washington. America’s energy security is not a Democratic issue, or a Republican issue. It is an issue that affects all of us.” 

Unfortunately for some congressional Republicans, partisanship worked very well over the summer as they engaged in a successful and highly publicized energy protest during the August recess.

But as the September session of Congress has opened, Democrats have relented on drilling and crafted wily plans in both chambers in an attempt to force through a package that will be tough to resist for moderate Republicans in tight re-election races.

The Senate energy plan started out as a "Gang of 10," with five Democrats and five Republicans, but it has doubled in size and added senators from a wide political spectrum. Virtually every politically vulnerable Senate Republican, ranging from Norm Coleman of Minnesota to John Sununu of New Hampshire, has signed on to the bill.

Left out in the cold as the coalition grows is Senate Republican leaders, who feel like they're losing a hot political issue to play against Democrats if their own GOP members latch on to a moderate oil drilling bill.

Over in the House, meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is pulling together a comprehensive energy bill  that would end a coastal drilling moratorium, allowing states to decide whether to lease drilling sites 50 miles off of their coastline.

Republicans complain that the legislation would not include revenue sharing for the states, removing a major incentive for states to open their coastal zones for underwater oil and gas exploration. House Republican leaders have dismissed Pelosi's energy package as a "sham" but there will be a vote some time next week, and Democrats are confident they have the numbers to pass the bill.

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