The House Democrats, like their presidential nominee, appear to be on the verge of walking away from a winning strategy. On Tuesday, I noted, it looked like they were going to embrace the "Gang of 10" position on offshore drilling, which is obviously the way to go from both a policy and strategic messaging point of view.

From a policy perspective, the “New Energy Reform Act of 2008” (aka "Gang of 10" proposal — now "Gang of 16") is something for nothing — de minimis and “opt in” drilling off the coast of a handful of Eastern states in return for some very strong clean energy policies, including an unprecedented five-year extension of the renewable tax credits. From a messaging perspective, the simpler message usually wins (unless, apparently, you’re a Democrat).

“Drill here, drill now” is obviously a simple message, one the Dems have failed to rebut. That said, “we endorse the bipartisan all-of-the-above drilling compromise from the Senate” is also a simple and politically winning message. Geez, the "Gang of 10" even includes close McCain ally Lindsey Graham.

That’s why I think the House and Senate Dems should simply have embraced the "Gang of 10" plan and put it — and nothing else — up for a vote, as I’ve said. If the GOP didn’t block it, then the Dems would have neutralized the issue and gotten something for nothing. Equally important, they would have avoided the criminally negligent act of letting the renewable tax credits expire at the end of the year. If the GOP did block it, then the Dems would have more than neutralized the issue — they would have turned the tables on the GOP, and given themselves a potent talking point and 30-second ad for the fall.

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Not to be. E&E News ($ub. req’d) reported yesterday:

Under relentless pressure to relax offshore drilling bans, House Democrats offered new major concessions yesterday with a plan that would ease limits on oil and gas leasing in large areas of the East and West coasts …

The proposal would allow drilling greater than 100 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and within 50 to 100 miles offshore if states allow it. However, the plan would preserve a 2006 law that generally keeps drilling at least 125 miles from Florida’s Gulf of Mexico shores until 2022 and would not provide states a share of the royalties if they “opt in” to outer continental shelf drilling.

I can’t remember this happening even once when the GOP controlled the Congress — the minority forcing the majority to embrace their legislative ideas. All it takes, apparently, is some unified whining by the House GOP.

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GOP leaders slammed the proposal. “In an attempt to provide themselves political cover, Democrats are going to pretend to ‘open up’ a large portion of the outer continental shelf for energy exploration — but without giving states any of the revenue for the oil and gas off their coasts,” said Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “With no financial incentive, no state will choose to `opt-in,’ and this bill will result in little or no new American energy production.”

Is the bill is a political loser for Dems at this point? Hard to say. It is less of a winner, for sure. And I’m still worried that, smelling blood, the GOP will be able to force more needless concessions, or even force an up-and-down vote just on drilling. The thing to bear in mind is that Bush is going to the House bill, so it is mostly an exercise in politics, in getting the House Dems on record voting for

  1. a balanced, all-of-above energy policy that includes drilling and
  2. a bipartisan compromise.

But if the House GOP is able to paint the bill as not being a bipartisan compromise, then it loses half its value. Here are the other provisions currently in the bill:

  • A renewable electricity standard of 15 percent by 2020, a quarter of which can be met with efficiency measures. This was part of a broad energy bill the House approved last year, but it stalled in the Senate and was left off the final energy bill approved by Congress and signed into law late last year.
  • Provisions to ensure payment of royalties on 1998-1999 deepwater Gulf of Mexico leases that currently allow royalty waivers regardless of energy prices. The House has previously passed a plan that bars companies with these leases from future gulf lease sales, unless they agree to price-based limits on the incentives or pay other fees.
  • Repeal of the Section 199 tax deduction for the five largest integrated oil companies. This has passed the House repeatedly but stalled in the Senate.
  • Sale of 70 million barrels of light crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and eventual replacement with heavier grades. This measure faltered on the House floor in July when it was brought up under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote.
  • Extension of renewable energy tax incentives that are currently set to expire at the end of the year. It also extends tax incentives for energy-efficient homes and buildings.

I really hope this means a five-year extention.

  • Provisions that pressure oil companies to produce on their currently held leases and accelerate leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a plan that failed when it was brought up under expedited rules in July.
  • The Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act, H.R. 6052, which overwhelmingly passed the House in June. It authorizes $1.7 billion in funding over two years for public transit systems to expand services and reduce fares.
  • Bipartisan legislation sponsored by Rep Rick Boucher (D-Va.) to speed deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies.
  • A plan sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to expand use of natural gas-powered vehicles.

The otherwise uber-shrewd Emanuel embraces the pointless and impractical and polluting part of the Pickens plan. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Update: Some reports indicate that Blue Dogs, oil-patch and freshmen Democrats demanded the expansion in drilling — to stave off GOP attacks. No doubt, but it is hard to get more oil patch and Blue than "Gang of 10"er, Mary Landrieu (D-La.). If she can be on board, not clear why House Dems need more cover.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.