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House debates gulf oil drilling measure deep into night

The U.S. House was struggling late Thursday night to pass a measure to open millions of acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling in exchange for long-term protections for Florida's west coast.

The bill, which House leaders were trying to roll into a wide-ranging package of legislation just hours before Congress hoped to adjourn for the year, would open 8.3-million acres of the eastern gulf to oil and gas exploration next year, while keeping rigs at least 234 miles off Tampa Bay.

The Senate passed the same drilling bill this summer. But because the House was trying to put it into a package with many provisions - including one to allow residents of Florida and other states without an income tax to deduct a portion of their state sales tax - the Senate must approve it again today.

That is by no means assured, with several senators expressing concern to tax and trade measures included in the package.

And in the House, leaders were still struggling late Thursday even to set the parameters for the debate - which wasn't expected to begin until after midnight. It could also be delayed until later today.

The bill would allow drilling 125 miles south of the Florida Panhandle, while prohibiting drilling more than 200 miles from Florida's west coast through 2022.

The measure was generally opposed by environmental groups.

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