A 26-year moratorium on offshore drilling will expire on Wednesday, after the House approved a temporary-spending package today sans a planned extension of the ban. The bill was approved by a 370-to-58 margin, hours after the Democratic majority nixed a provision that would have maintained the prohibition on drilling off the U.S. coast line.

The measure is likely to be approved by the Senate within a few days, the Associated Press reports. President Bush had threatened to veto the package if it extended the ban.

Democrats backed away from their longstanding support of the drilling limit over the summer, after fuel prices skyrocketed and consumer discontent over the surging costs became a top issue on the presidential campaign trail. Both candidates support offshore drilling; Republican John McCain wants drilling allowed on the Outer Continental Shelf, while Barack Obama backs offshore drilling if it's accompanied by development of alternative energy sources.

It's not clear whether oil companies will capitalize on the expiration — or if drilling offshore can really make the U.S. fuel independent. A separate energy package approved by the House last week would allow drilling 50 to 100 miles from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But much to the chagrin of the industry and Republicans, that legislation would also scrap $18 billion in tax breaks for oil companies.

(Image of oil rig from iStockphoto, Copyright: S. Greg Panosian)