TITUSVILLE, Fla. - Senator Barack Obama said yesterday that a shift in his stance on offshore oil drilling is a necessary compromise with Republicans to gain their support for his broader goals of energy independence.
Obama last week indicated a willingness to support an effort by five Democratic senators and five Republicans to break Congress's energy impasse with legislation that would allow expanded offshore oil exploration and embrace ambitious energy efficiency and efforts to develop alternative fuels.
Republicans have seized on the drilling issue, hoping to finally get political traction amid soaring gasoline prices. Democratic leaders have done everything possible to stand in their way.
Obama said yesterday that it is time to compromise. The proposal by the Senate's "Gang of 10" has "some of the very aggressive elements that I've outlined in my plan," he said here, including a goal in 20 years of having 85 percent of cars no longer operating on petroleum-based fuels and providing $7 billion to help the US auto industry retool to build ultra-efficient vehicles.
"What I don't want is for the best to be the enemy of the good here, and if we can come up with a genuine, bipartisan compromise in which I have to accept some things I don't like, or the Democrats have to accept some things that they don't like, in exchange for moving us in the direction of energy independence, then that's something I'm open to," Obama said. "I wanted to send a strong signal that we can't allow partisan bickering or the desire to score political points to get in the way of providing some genuine relief to people who are struggling," he said.
Republicans seized on Obama's shift, accusing him of inconstant and politically motivated policy stands. The Republican National Committee sent out a news release noting that on Wednesday in Missouri, Obama declared: "If I thought that I could provide you some immediate relief on gas prices by drilling off the shores of California and New Jersey . . . if I thought that by drilling offshore, we could solve our problem, I'd do it."
The drilling issue may offer Obama the strongest reason yet for compromise. New polls suggest that opposition to offshore drilling is easing under the weight of $4-a-gallon gasoline.
"We can't drill our way out of the problem," he said yesterday. But "I also recognize that in the House and the Senate, there are Republicans who have very clear ideas about what they want, and at some point people are going to have to make some decisions. Do we want to keep on arguing, or are we going to get some things done?"
Senator John McCain's campaign at once took credit for leading Obama to his new position and questioned whether he ultimately would support additional drilling. McCain also opposed expanded offshore drilling until switching his position in June.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, shut down the chamber and sent the House home for a five-week August recess Friday rather than have a vote on expanded drilling. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, signaled on Friday that he would entertain using the Gang of 10 deal as grounds for compromise when Congress returns in September.
President Bush chastised Democrats yesterday for refusing to allow a vote on whether to lift the drilling ban before lawmakers departed for their summer recess. "To reduce pressure on prices, we need to increase the supply of oil, especially oil produced here at home," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
The Senate package would repeal tax breaks for oil companies that Democrats have opposed, fund more research into fuel efficiency, help consumers buy plug-in hybrid vehicles or convert existing hybrids to plug-ins, and extend tax breaks for renewable electricity sources for eight years. States would have the final say in approving drilling plans on the Outer Continental Shelf, no closer than 50 miles from the shore.