WASHINGTON — The Senate embraced President Bush's scaled-down plan for oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico by rejecting an amendment Thursday that would have blocked energy production off Florida's shores.
Eighteen Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, joined all Republican senators to kill the proposed ban.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer hailed the 67-33 vote as "a victory for all Americans who want to see environmentally responsible energy production."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who had proposed the amendment to the Interior Department spending bill, said the vote was "a blow to those of us who want to protect Florida's economy and environment from the threat of oil drilling."
Before the administration announced its compromise plan, the House approved blocking oil and gas development off the Florida coast.
Nelson's spokesman said a number of key House supporters of the ban appear to have defected since the Bush compromise was announced, likely clearing the path for drilling.
"It probably is a victory for the Bush White House today," said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's spokesman. "We think it's shortsighted."
Nelson argued that the relatively minor oil and gas reserves do not justify the threat to Florida's coast, given that the state's economy relies so heavily on tourism at its beaches.
The administration's plan will permit drilling within a 1.5-million-acre expanse, one-fourth the size of the original lease proposal. No drilling will be allowed within 100 miles of the state's coastline.
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had opposed the original lease but supported the compromise.
Democratic senators who voted against the amendment Thursday clearly felt some pressure to show constituents that they were looking for new energy supplies.
"The senator believes that to meet the nation's energy needs over the next decade we're going to need to do more than just conserve," said Brian Selander, spokesman for Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), who voted against the amendment. The compromise proposal "seemed like a reasonable and responsible way to meet the needs for energy production."
The Gulf site, even in its reduced size, holds an estimated 1.25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 185 million barrels of oil, according to the administration.
"This compromise is based on an underlying belief that using today's technology we can protect the environment and develop needed energy resources," Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said.
Senators said they do not think that the vote signals broad congressional eagerness for expanding energy exploration. Just a day earlier, the Senate voted to ban drilling for oil and gas in national monuments.
"Whether it means we're now going to have aggressive energy development in other areas, I doubt it," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.). Breaux, who voted against the ban, often votes in favor of oil development because his state's economy relies heavily on oil production in the Gulf.
Feinstein said she endorsed the Bush compromise because she thinks it is reasonable.
"We need a policy that is balanced between conservation and energy production, and I believe that this proposal is part of a balanced approach," she said.
"The proposed lease area is less than one-third the size . . . that President Clinton proposed for oil and gas drilling. It is 100 miles off the coast. If we can't drill 100 miles out, where can we?"