WASHINGTON - Lawmakers sped for the exits yesterday as Congress was to begin a five-week recess after a summer session noteworthy for bitter partisanship and paralysis on the issue topmost in the minds of many voters: the cost of gasoline.
As its last major act, the House passed by a 409-to-4 vote its first spending bill, a $72.7 billion measure awarding generous increases to veterans programs and military base construction projects.
More noteworthy however, was what Congress failed to do: pass energy legislation and other measures aimed at lowering the price of gasoline.
Senate Republicans blocked a bill aimed at curbing speculation in oil markets, while a similar bill and several others by House Democrats - including a plan to encourage drilling in available coastal areas and in Alaska - failed to advance after party leaders brought them to the floor under procedures that required supermajorities to pass. That procedure blocked Republicans from forcing a vote on opening new areas to oil drilling.
Republicans have been pressing to allow oil exploration in areas that are off limits, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The Republicans have been relentless in their assault on Democrats over the topic, even though opening the Outer Continental Shelf to new exploration wouldn't put any oil on the market for a decade or more.
Democratic leaders have been resolute in blocking new offshore exploration, even as oil patch members and moderates in the party support the idea.
It's clear that if a vote were allowed, new offshore drilling plans would be allowed.
"Congress shouldn't leave its business unfinished while American wallets are drained at the pump," said Representative Ander Crenshaw, Republican of Florida.
After the House adjourned and the C-SPAN cameras were off, a few dozen Republicans remained on the floor giving impassioned speeches about Democrats' decision to adjourn without a vote on their energy plan.
"Republicans will not go quietly," said Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana. "Let us demand that the president of the United States . . . call a special session of this Congress on energy."
Democrats believe they can weather the criticism since voters are hardly sympathetic to the big oil companies pressing to lift the drilling restrictions. They perform better than Republicans in opinion polls on energy - despite the shift in opinions favoring offshore drilling - as well as on most other issues.
The battle over energy has also largely shuttered the annual appropriations process, the 12 bills funding Cabinet agency budgets that are supposed to be passed by the Oct. 1 start of the 2009 budget year.
The House and Senate chairmen of the appropriations committees shut down panel deliberations to avoid votes on lifting the offshore moratorium, which has been in place for about two decades.
The spending measure that passed yesterday is one of a handful that has a chance to become law before Congress adjourns for elections.
It awards generous increases for veterans' medical care and military base construction and base closures.