By Carl Hulse
WASHINGTON -- Upon entering Congress in 1987, Representative Nancy Pelosi quickly became part of the solid California front against oil drilling along much of the nation's coast.
The Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 and the steady push to tap the potential reserves off the state's rugged coast had galvanized Californians and made opposition to offshore drilling part of the political DNA of up-and-coming figures like Ms. Pelosi.
She repeatedly resisted oil drilling in marine sanctuaries near her San Francisco district and, after joining the Appropriations Committee, was an advocate of reinstating the ban on coastal drilling through spending restrictions each year.
“We learned the hard way that oil and water do not mix on our coast,” Ms. Pelosi told a crucial committee in 1996 as she argued for keeping the ban before a Congress then controlled by Republicans.
Now, with gasoline prices soaring, those drilling restrictions are facing their most severe test in years as calls intensify to pursue domestic oil more forcefully. Yet despite increasing pressure from President Bush, a full-bore assault by Congressional Republicans and some anxiety among her own rank-and-file Democrats, Ms. Pelosi is not budging.
“The president of the United States, with gas at $4 a gallon because of his failed energy policies, is now trying to say that is because I couldn't drill offshore,” Ms. Pelosi said in an interview. “That is not the cause, and I am not going to let him get away with it.”
Her voice carries considerable weight because Ms. Pelosi, who is now House speaker, can prevent a vote on expanded drilling from reaching the floor.
And she and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, appear intent on holding the line against calls to approve drilling in areas now off limits. They argue that the oil and gas industry is not aggressively exploring large expanses it has already leased on land and offshore. They have also urged Mr. Bush to pour some fuel from national reserves into the commercial supply chain in an effort to lower prices.
Trying to demonstrate that Democrats are not opposed to drilling in acceptable locales, the House is scheduled to vote on Thursday on a proposal that would deny oil companies any new leases unless they can show they are diligently exploring existing holdings. The measure would also require annual lease sales from lands in Alaska set aside as a National Petroleum Reserve, and direct the Interior Department to make sure a pipeline is linked to the reserves. Democrats, not subtly, are calling the measure the Drill Responsibly in Leased Lands, or Drill, Act.
In the Senate, Democrats are pushing a measure to curb speculation in oil markets.
But Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, who is escorting a delegation to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska this weekend, said the Democrats' approach was woefully insufficient. Mr. Boehner said Ms. Pelosi, in insisting on preserving the drilling ban, was putting Democrats in the crosshairs of voters furious about gas prices.
“I think Speaker Pelosi is walking her Blue Dogs and other vulnerable Democrats off a cliff, and they know it,” said Mr. Boehner, referring to the coalition of Democrats representing more conservative districts.
He accused the speaker of using procedural maneuvers to thwart votes on expanded drilling, a position that he said would prevail if the moment arrived. “Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are standing in the way of what the American people want,” Mr. Boehner said.
In both the House and Senate, small groups of Democrats have begun meeting informally with Republicans to try to reach a bipartisan response to higher oil prices, and opening up new areas to drilling is part of the mix. Leaders of the Blue Dog coalition are openly pressing for drilling in the Arctic refuge and elsewhere.
Backers of the drilling ban have pushed back furiously and appear to have bolstered some of their colleagues. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who has been fighting offshore drilling since the 1970s, has been cornering fellow senators to impress upon them the importance of the ban to Californians, comparing it to a mainstay of farm-state senators.
“This is our ethanol,” Mrs. Boxer said of protecting the coast from oil drilling.
Since taking over as speaker, Ms. Pelosi has asserted herself on energy policy, which she sees as an overarching cause that encompasses national security, climate change, the economy, health care and the environment.
“This captures everything,” said Ms. Pelosi, who last year broke a deadlock that had lasted for decades over increasing automotive fuel economy standards.
In a private meeting last week, according to some in attendance, Ms. Pelosi told members of her leadership team that a decision to relent on the drilling ban would amount to capitulation to Republicans and the White House, and that she was having none of it. She attributes today's energy problems to a failure of the Bush administration to develop a comprehensive approach, to its ties to the oil industry and to a mishandling of the economy.
With the drilling restrictions under such scrutiny, backers of the ban say they are heartened that Ms. Pelosi wields the power she does.
“It is really important to have a Californian as speaker on this topic,” said Representative Lois Capps, a Democrat who represents Santa Barbara.
Ms. Pelosi has shown a willingness on issues like terror surveillance and spending on the Iraq war to look past her personal views and allow legislation she opposes to move through the House. But on the drilling ban, it is clear she sees her position as the one that should carry the day. She said national policy had to move beyond the long dispute over the ban.
“This is part of the fight we are in,” she said. “We have to get to a place where one day my grandchildren will say, ‘Do you believe our grandparents had to go with their car and fill up?' It will be like going with a barrel on our head to a well to get water. That will be the equivalent.”