OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Spill silences once-raucous 'drill, baby, drill' camp

"Drill, baby, drill" is now, "Hush, baby, hush."

The Republican battle cry that crystallized the growing popularity of offshore drilling has dropped from view since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank last week and the well it drilled started shooting crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

As Democratic opponents of the oil industry stepped up their attacks and demands for a sharp turn away from drilling, Republican leaders in Congress have slipped out of rapid-response mode and are generally holding their tongues.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has issued at least 11 broadsides at Democrats since the rig sank in 5,000 feet of water. Most dealt with financial regulatory reform. None addressed the rig explosion or spill. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has focused on jobs and health care in the nearly 20 statements he has issued in the past week without a word about the spill or loss of life, though at his on-camera news conference this week, reporters did not ask him about it.

A Nexis search turns up only four mentions of "drill, baby, drill" and Rudy Giuliani or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who drove the slogan home during the McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. Three are liberal cable hosts mocking the slogan.

The liberal web site The Huffington Post noted that Sarah Palin and party Chairman Michael Steele, who carried the drill-baby banner, have not brought up the idea since the rig sank in 5,000 feet of water approximately 52 miles southeast of Venice, La. A pipe on the ocean floor is believed to be belching 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, of crude oil each day into the Gulf.

In an article posted yesterday shortly before midnight, the blog stated that Palin has published four new Facebook messages since the initial explosion, and Steele has issued six statements in the past week.

This morning Palin broke the silence with a Twitter comment saying, "Having worked/lived thru Exxon oil spill, my family & I understand Gulf residents' fears. Our prayers r w/u. All industry efforts must b employed."

Even as criticism of the Obama administration's response has started to surface, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who rarely misses an opportunity to castigate the administration, has said nary a word.

The Republicans' decision to duck in the face of criticism could prove worrisome to its allies in the petroleum industry, who before the spill had gained significant political momentum in Washington for their drive to open up new areas for production.

The Democratic attacks and Republican silence came even as about 70 oil and gas workers fanned out across Capitol Hill this week to lobby for domestic development in a "fly in" organized by the American Petroleum Institute. API issued a statement the day after the rig exploded, stressing the importance of safety in drilling.

But even as oil began to wash ashore in Louisiana wetlands, Newt Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future organization continued to solicit signatures for its "Drill here, Drill now, Pay less," campaign in support of more domestic production in American waters. The slogan is pasted atop the group's website above a staff-written spill update with a generally optimistic view, though it does note that the spill could damage the Gulf's seafood industry.

And there are signs that even Democrats are walking back what support they had begrudgingly granted to offshore drilling.

President Obama announced late last month that he wanted to expand drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf and the seas around Alaska. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime drilling opponent and close White House ally, maintained yesterday that Obama had not actually expanded drilling.

"What the president was talking about was actually narrowing the drilling," Pelosi said in her weekly televised news conference. "The president was being discrete in proposing some areas for review that people might agree to. So it isn't as if the president expanded drilling. He was narrowing what the moratorium lifted. Am I clear?"

Democratic calls for rethinking the nation's pro-offshore drilling policy are spreading beyond the gulf. As have some environmental groups, House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Moran (D-Va.) said the Gulf spill shows drilling should not be expanded off Alaska either.

"If the drilling industry is incapable of capping a blowout in temperate waters in a region with more than 80 years of offshore experience in the close proximity of equipment, manpower and technical expertise, I have grave doubts about the industry's response capabilities in the frigid Arctic waters off Alaska's coast," Moran said. The spill could also threaten hope of Republicans and more conservative Democrats in his state for drilling off Virginia Beach.

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