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House Faces Summertime Blues in Energy Fight

Tom Williams/Roll Call
The Republican Study Committee presented its own energy plan last week. From left: Reps. Bob Latta, Tim Huelskamp, Steve Southerland, Steve Scalise and Rob Bishop attend the news conference on Thursday.

In the House, an energy debate is building over the issue of rising gas prices as Republicans and Democrats try to win the messaging battle before having to face constituents back home at the end of the month.

Republicans plan consideration of two energy-related bills for this week while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is set to introduce her own proposals that she hopes will overshadow the GOP messaging plan.

“I think we can find some common ground on this as long as we have the consumer and the taxpayers’ interest at heart,” the California Democrat said at a press conference last week. “And that’s why we will be putting forth legislation to end tax breaks for the biggest oil companies, making sure that these companies pay the royalty that is due the American people and taxpayer.”

Republicans are blaming rising gas prices — and the 9 percent unemployment rate — on the Obama administration.

“Skyrocketing gas prices are placing increased strain on already tight budgets, and we are responding by passing legislation that maximizes energy production here at home, which will bring down gas prices and create jobs,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Friday after the latest jobs report was released. “With our unemployment rate still at 9 percent, it is clear that far too many people remain out of work.”

The Virginia Republican cheered the House’s approval of legislation that would expedite the granting of offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where President Barack Obama implemented a temporary drilling moratorium after last year’s devastating BP oil spill. The moratorium has since been lifted, but Republicans have repeatedly hammered the administration for not doing enough to promote drilling in the Gulf. Two more pro-drilling measures are on tap for this week.

Despite all this activity, which includes a separate proposal from the Republican Study Committee, Congressional observers maintain that none of the plans will help consumers in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, the official kickoff to the summer driving season. Yet with the average gallon of gas reaching $3.98 on Friday, up from $2.92 at the same time last year, both parties are scrambling to get in front of the issue.  

Republicans have launched an aggressive push to incorporate the issue of gas prices into nearly every talking point. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) launched the House Energy Action Team last week that has 27 other Republican members, including Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) and Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (Wash.), which will act as GOP leadership’s primary vehicle for pushing its energy agenda.

Still, some GOP Members quietly grumbled last week that the conference didn’t focus sooner on gas prices, which were on the rise last month.

“Coming from South Florida, I don’t want to see gas prices all of the sudden at $5 or above and no one’s coming down to South Florida to enjoy our beaches and the weather and vacation,” freshman Rep. Allen West said. “We’ve definitely got to refocus on this. Maybe we should have been focused in April as well when we saw it coming.”

One GOP strategist said talking about gas prices is good for the party after getting hit on the proposed overhaul of Medicare, a politically hot topic that has hurt Republicans since voting for Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) sweeping budget plan last month. All but four Members of the GOP Conference voted to approve the plan, which Democrats seized on for its provisions to convert health care for seniors into a voucher program.

“If you’re a Republican, you probably want to be talking about the debt limit and gas prices; those are much more friendly issues for them,” the strategist said. “They’ve sustained a relatively brutal hit on Medicare. They are way off message [on Medicare], and they have a winning message on debt limit and gas prices.”

In his weekly address, Obama spoke of an Indianapolis factory that produces hybrid bus engines. “The clean energy jobs at this plant are the jobs of the future — jobs that pay well right here in America.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) today will deliver a speech on the economy and energy at the Economic Club of New York. And after that, the seesaw of appearances and press releases is expected to carry throughout the week.

“On the one hand, oil prices became a messaging casualty for Republicans as they tried to rightly tackle other issues like the deficit and Medicare,” the strategist said. “On the other hand, we’re still two weeks out from Memorial Day weekend and that’s when voters will really feel the pinch on this issue. This could end up being really well-timed at the end of the day.”

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