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Obama Softens His Stance on Offshore Oil Drilling

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate John McCain have both been weighing on the issue of soaring gas prices and whether or not drilling for oil in U.S. coastal waters could help bring energy prices down. President Bush is scolding Democratic leaders in Congress for not voting to lift a ban on drilling before leaving for their August recess. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine has the story from Washington.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama has made a surprise shift in his position on expanding offshore oil drilling, saying he could support a drilling proposal announced yesterday by five Republican and five Democratic senators.

The preliminary plan would allow Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to open up waters beyond 80 kilometers from shore to oil drilling. The measure would also repeal tax breaks for oil companies and devote $20 billion to converting cars and trucks to run on alternative fuels.

At a news conference in Florida Saturday, Obama said he still does not believe the United States can "drill its way" out of its energy problems, but said he is willing to compromise in order to get a comprehensive energy solution. "And if we can come up with a genuine bipartisan compromise, in which I have to accept some things that I don't like or the Democrats have to accept some things that they don't like in exchange for actually moving us in the direction of actual energy independence, then that's something I'm open to," he said.

Obama welcomed the bipartisan measure, but said he remains skeptical on the drilling provisions. On Friday, Obama also proposed a windfall profits tax on oil companies that would fund $1,000 emergency rebate checks for millions of Americans suffering under soaring gas and energy prices.

Speaking earlier Friday to his supporters in Racine, Wisconsin, the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain called for offshore drilling to begin right away. "My friends, we must begin immediately in drilling offshore so we can get some of the oil that is off our own coasts. We have to begin that drilling, and Senator Obama opposes it," he said.

Despite the bipartisan energy proposal announced in the Senate Friday, members of both houses of Congress adjourned for their August recess without passing new energy legislation. In his weekly radio address, Republican President Bush put the blame on Democrats. "Unfortunately, Democratic leaders are leaving town with taking any action to ease the burden of high gas prices on families across America," he said.

President Bush acknowledged that it could be years before any of the oil beneath offshore waters could be pumped, but he said the sooner Congress lifts the ban, the sooner the oil will reach Americans' gas tanks.

He also called on Congress to end restrictions on developing shale oil on federal lands in the West and to allow drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats in Congress have long opposed the drilling, saying it would impose a risk to pristine natural areas and that the impact on gas prices would be only pennies per liter, years from now.