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House leaders put off vote on drilling in gulf

Republican House leaders abruptly abandoned plans Tuesday to vote on a bill that would open 8.3-million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration after realizing they lacked the votes to pass it.

They plan to revive it later this week, before Congress adjourns for the year, either as a stand-alone bill requiring a simple majority, or as part of a larger bill that would extend certain tax cuts.

The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously last summer, would permit drilling 125 miles off the Florida Panhandle in exchange for a ban on drilling off the state's west coast up to 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

It would also direct billions of dollars in the federal drilling royalties to Gulf Coast states that allow drilling.

House leaders had planned to pass the bill in an expedited manner Tuesday afternoon. But that would have required two-thirds of the House, or about 290 votes, rather than a simple majority.

Environmental groups and most Democratic members of the Florida House delegation oppose it, while Republican members are split. The state's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez, support the bill. Martinez urged the House to act.

"There is going to be (drilling) activities in the gulf,'' he said. "What we can do is limit (the extent). This is the very best Florida can do."