The Senate on Thursday backed a White House compromise that drastically reduced proposed oil and natural gas drilling off Florida
's Gulf Coast, rejecting a bid by the state's Democratic senators to temporarily block development of the tract.
Voting 67-33, the Democratic-led Senate rejected an amendment pushed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Bob Graham to delay for six months oil and gas leasing in a lucrative tract in federal waters off the coasts of Florida and Alabama.
After the Republican-led House of Representatives voted last month for a six-month ban on the leasing, President George W. Bush agreed to shrink the tract by 75 percent and keep it at least 100 miles away from Florida's beaches.
Florida lawmakers, including Gov. Jeb Bush,(the president's brother), had opposed the original plan for much bigger development that stretched as close as 20 miles to the state's coast. But the governor and most Republicans called the White House compromise a win.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton called the vote "a victory for all Americans who want to see environmentally responsible energy production and stable energy prices."
But Louisiana Democratic Sen. John Breaux, who led the fight against the temporary ban, did not see growing support in Congress for Bush's calls for an all-out effort to boost domestic energy production.
"Whether it means we're now going to have aggressive energy development in other areas, I doubt it," said Breaux, who is from a major oil-producing state. He said the White House gave up too much in forfeiting most of the promising tract.
The vote came on an $18.7 billion bill to fund public lands programs in the next fiscal year starting on Oct. 1 that the Senate was expected to complete later in the day.
Mirroring the House, which passed its version of the spending bill last month, the Senate on Wednesday voted to fend off any efforts by the Bush administration to allow energy exploration in millions of acres in western states protected as national monuments for their beauty or environmental importance.
With Democrats and moderate Republicans tipping the balance, Congress has been signaling skepticism of Bush's calls to tap new areas for oil, coal and natural gas to decrease dependence on foreign supplies and stem skyrocketing costs and shortages.
Environmentalists have charged Bush's energy plan panders to fossil fuel companies while largely shrugging off potential gains from conservation, cleaner technologies and alternative fuels.
But lawmakers from energy-producing states argue the United States must boost its own production to reduce dependence on OPEC oil, saying the potentially rich Gulf of Mexico tract would play an important role in that.
They also called Florida a prime example of "not in my backyard" syndrome, resisting offshore oil development for fear of hurting its tourist trade while demanding ever-increasing supplies for a growing population and economy.
The scaled-back plan is "a reasonable compromise" that should not be delayed, several said.
But Nelson said even the smaller area encroaches on eastern Gulf waters that have not been tapped before, and would start the "inevitable march eastward straight toward Tampa Bay."
With a $50 billion tourist industry a stake, he said, "Floridians do not want waves of oil lapping up on the beaches" from possible spills.
Under the compromise for the area known as Lease Sale 181, 1.5 million acres from the original total 5.9 million would be open to drilling as early as this fall. The remainder would be closed for at least five
Drilling would be closer to the coast of Alabama, which pushed for the much larger development.