The issue of rising energy prices and future needs took center stage Friday in the U.S. Congress. Republicans and Democrats engaged in intense debate over high prices for gasoline and natural gas, efforts to develop new energy sources, and the role of oil companies. The debate culminated in a dramatic display of partisan discord on the floor of the House of Representatives.
One of the outcomes of the two hurricanes that struck the United States in August and September has been an often fierce debate over America's energy needs, and how to deal with the continuing upward trend in prices.
Amid predictions of unprecedented increases in prices for natural gas, needed to heat homes and businesses, and frustration over high gasoline prices, lawmakers clashed over Republican legislation aimed at boosting oil refining capacity and lowering gasoline prices.
Republican Congressman Joe Barton said the bill was needed to address not only the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but a decades-long decline in the number of U.S. oil refineries.
"We have closed over half of the refineries in the United States of America in the last 30 years. That might be acceptable if the demand for their products was going down, but in fact the opposite is true, the demand for refined products in our nation is rising every year," he said.
Among other things, the legislation aims to streamline the process of approval for expanding existing oil refineries, or building new ones giving the federal government more power to select locations.
It also makes changes to some related clean air regulations, steps criticized by environmental groups and other critics.
Democrats asserted the legislation fails to address price gouging (profiteering) aggressively enough, or deal with refining capacity, and renewed longstanding criticism that Republicans are selling out to oil companies that have registered large profits.
"This bill does nothing to provide price relief to consumers or to prevent gouging," said Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio. "Big oil [companies] gets a pass, yet again. They aren't getting as big of a gift this time, just a pass."
Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy fired back. "There will be a temptation to blame the high gas prices on the storms alone, or to use politics to block this, but the American people understand you cannot drive a car with politics in your [gas] tank, or heat a home with politics," he said.
In a portent of things to come, some Republicans defied their leadership and opposed their own party's bill, among them Congressman Sherwood Boehlert.
"H.R. 3893 [the legislation] will increase the deficit, harm the environment, undermine the states, and give charity to oil companies, while doing virtually nothing to help consumers," he said. "The whole premise of this bill is faulty."
The majority prevailed narrowly (by a 212 to 210 vote) but with a number of Republican lawmakers voting with Democrats.
When Republicans held the vote open for more than 40 minutes to assure victory, Democrats, who have complained bitterly about what they call Republican strong-arm tactics, protested resulting in acrimonious exchanges on the floor of the House.
Here, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi strains to voice a parliamentary inquiry to the presiding Republican lawmaker:
Pelosi: Is it not bringing dishonor to the House of Representatives for this body to act in the shameful way that it did?
House presiding officer: The gentlelady is not stating a proper parliamentary inquiry!
Pelosi: Is it not part of the culture of corruption of the Republican party to dishonor the wishes of the American people.
House presiding officer: Does the gentlelady have a parliamentary inquiry?
Republicans responded they were abiding by House rules in extending the time for the vote.
The dramatic debate finished a week in which Congress continued to address short and long-term damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita through numerous pieces of legislation.
Congress also gave final approval to a $30 billion bill funding needs for homeland security, an issue lawmakers believe goes hand in hand with the question of the security and reliability of America's energy supplies.