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WASHINGTON - With gas prices topping out near $4 a gallon, at least two Minnesota Democrats have joined Republicans in Congress to expand offshore oil drilling, a wide-ranging effort being fought by environmentalists and the Obama administration.
Rural Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson were among two dozen Democrats who voted Wednesday with House Republicans on a pair of bills that would speed the approval process for offshore oil and gas drilling permits and expand deep-water exploration leases.
Wednesday's House votes came as top Democrats take aim at billions of dollars in federal subsidies for the nation's biggest oil companies, an effort designed in part to tie the GOP to the oil and gas interests in the ongoing budget battle.
House Democratic leaders, including Peterson, on Wednesday accused Republicans of trying to delay a planned federal crackdown on oil speculation in financial markets.
But Democratic defections on the GOP drilling legislation are an indication of the public pressure lawmakers face as the summer driving season approaches -- even if the measures would be unlikely to help with prices at the pump anytime soon. The bills face an uphill climb in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
As both parties gear up for the 2012 elections, Republicans have blamed rising gas prices on the Obama administration. They say the administration has all but ceased issuing new offshore drilling permits in the wake of last year's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Today's votes are a critical step toward getting Congress and the administration out of the way so we can expand offshore energy production, create jobs and begin to move our country toward energy independence," said Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
The White House has decried the GOP drilling program, saying it would "undercut" safety reforms begun after the massive spill off the Louisiana coast.
Environmental groups also stand opposed. "We can't drill our way out of the problem," said Ken Bradley, executive director of Environment Minnesota, one of dozens of groups nationally that oppose expanded offshore drilling. "This does Minnesotans no good at all."
For Walz, the vote to expand offshore drilling could be softened by his support for a bipartisan plan that would dedicate up to $3.7 trillion in federal revenue from new offshore leases for roads, bridges and renewable energy projects around the nation.
Despite opposition from environmentalists who normally support Walz, the Mankato Democrat argues that a transition to renewable energy can't happen overnight, especially without the funding stream created by the expanded drilling legislation he announced Thursday.
"I'm a pragmatic person," Walz said in an interview. "I realize you're going to need fossil fuels to help make that transition."
It is not the first time Walz has sought the middle ground on energy production. He backed a similar plan in 2008, the same year Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar joined a bipartisan group in the U.S. Senate to lift a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf and the Southeast as part of a larger energy package.
Klobuchar takes what aides call an "all of the above" approach. Her Minnesota colleague in the Senate, Democrat Al Franken, takes a harder line against the expansion of offshore drilling. He backs legislation requiring oil companies to produce in offshore areas they already lease. There are 38 million acres under lease offshore, 70 percent of them idle, according to Franken.
Wednesday's House votes were part of three related bills to expand oil exploration off the Gulf coast as well as the coast of Virginia, a plan the Obama White House cancelled after the BP disaster.
On the first vote, taken last week, Walz and Peterson were among 33 Democrats who sided with the GOP majority.
Walz acknowledges that as gas prices go up, so does congressional interest in offshore drilling. He acknowledges that he doesn't necessarily agree with the GOP rationale for opening new areas to drilling.
"Some of this stretches me right to the edge," Walz said.
In particular, he said, he doesn't believe that more drilling will relieve pressure at the pump in the short term.
"I'm not going to bluff anyone," Walz said.
"This is a long-range energy strategy that gets us off of dependence on foreign oil and lets us get a broader portfolio."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.