Energy Politics Debated

Posted July 18, 2008 at 5:48pm

Democrats and Republicans on the Hill are calling on their presidential candidates to turn up the volume in the fight over how to lower gas prices, as the two parties ratchet up their partisan rhetoric on the issue.

Even as lawmakers have been engaging in a battle royal over soaring energy costs, the campaigns of both presumptive nominees, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), have focused on foreign policy for the past few weeks. That has some lawmakers scratching their heads.

“If I were running for president, I’d sure be talking more about energy. It’s all I’m hearing about back home,” House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) said. “And you can’t talk about foreign policy without talking about energy.”

The issue has been more pronounced for Republicans, who believe they have Democrats on the defensive, given polls showing increased public support for more domestic oil and gas drilling — an issue the GOP has championed but one Democrats have tried to sidestep.

“It’s more of a problem that [the McCain campaign is] not holding Obama accountable for what his views are,” said a senior Senate GOP aide. “This is an issue where there should be a distinct contrast between McCain and Obama. There should be a drumbeat.”

Hill Democrats counter that Obama has his own argument to make. They charge that with two oilmen in the White House presiding over the runup in energy costs, Republicans have lost credibility on the issue. A June Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama claiming a 20-point advantage over McCain on the question of which candidate voters trust more to address gas prices.

Congressional partisans of both stripes said the problem is not that Obama and McCain haven’t both laid out plans for dealing with the energy crisis. McCain has been talking about his “Lexington Project” energy plan since late June, and Obama gave a speech on his proposals on July 11 in Dayton, Ohio.

But members of both parties said neither has taken the bullhorn available to presidential candidates to get voters to zero in on their respective plans.

Privately, Democrats have been frustrated that Obama took such a long time to come out with a comprehensive energy policy and that his new plan appeared to be more about checking the box than engaging in a larger national debate on the issue.

“It’s extremely detailed, but he hasn’t put the necessary amplification behind it,” one Senate Democratic aide complained.

The aide added, “A lot of Democrats were waiting for him to come out with something, and he left us flat-footed. … We didn’t want to step on his toes, and now, we have some ground to make up.”

Republicans, meanwhile, said McCain could compete against Obama on domestic issues by ramping up the energy debate.

“The presidential candidate who convinces the public he has a bona fide plan for energy independence will win,” said Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.), who, with Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), recently formed a bipartisan working group to craft a new energy policy. Peterson said he has been urging the McCain camp to get more specific in its energy prescriptions and to devote more attention to the issue on the stump. “That’s what people want to talk about,” he said.

Both presidential campaigns maintain energy is a top-line concern and featured accordingly.

“You’ve seen over the last few weeks a huge emphasis by John McCain on energy,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said. “He talks about it every day on the trail, and it’s a huge issue for the folks he meets out in the town halls who are facing record gas prices.” He noted that McCain, as part of a Friday visit to a General Motors plant in Warren, Mich., toured the production facility for the Chevy Volt, an electric car. McCain has proposed drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf as well as funding for “green” technology.

“Sen. Obama has stated that we need real ideas to give hardworking Americans relief from high prices and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and that is exactly what his plan does,” Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro said. Shapiro noted that Obama has proposed investments in clean energy.

Still, many Democrats acknowledged that the issue is a minefield for the party, given their inability to coalesce around a single policy. That problem came to a head in the Senate in June when even Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) objected to parts of the leadership-driven Consumer-First Energy Act. It fell to a GOP-led filibuster.

Republicans have been rallying around a pro-drilling measure that incorporates a modicum of conservation and have been using the slogan, “Find More, Use Less.” To highlight their push, House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) over the weekend was expected to lead a delegation of 10 House Republicans to visit an energy lab in Colorado, an oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Congressional Democrats say they know they have to do something, even if it only chips away at the edges of the rise in gas prices. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be pursuing passage this week of a bill to tamp down speculation in the oil futures market, they said.

Plus, the aide noted, McCain’s experience with the energy issue showed that not all ideas will be warmly embraced. McCain was criticized earlier this year — as was Obama’s Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) — for proposing a gas tax holiday. Obama opposed the plan.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) acknowledged that Obama has pivoted away from energy and gas prices but said a national campaign must have many themes.

Gas prices are “the No. 1 issue, but it’s not the only issue,” Durbin said last week. He added, “I think what they’re trying to do is serve the entire spectrum of issues that face us in this election. There’s no question that it starts with energy, but that isn’t the only issue.”

“They’re not talking about it every day, and he’s giving a foreign policy speech on Iraq,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said. “But they’re doing that because there’s a way that campaigns develop and a character they develop in the back-and-forth discussion.”

Similarly, some Republicans defended the presidential campaigns’ recent focus on foreign policy.

“Obviously, we believe [energy] is the No. 1 issue for voters, but they have until November to make their case,” Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said.

Others in the GOP said McCain should get some credit for framing the party’s energy message when he came out in favor of more drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf in mid-June.

“McCain was the first one to talk about offshore [drilling], but since then, he’s gone off it,” said one Senate GOP aide.

Regardless of whether the presidential candidates are talking about it now, Members and staff said the issue is impossible to ignore.

As Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) observed, “Over $4-a-gallon gas makes sure this stays right front and center.”