Senate Garners Mixed Reviews

Posted July 31, 2008 at 6:15pm

Senate Democrats and Republicans prepared Thursday to go home with messages that blame each other for the gridlock that recently has prevented the chamber from passing legislation, most notably a measure targeting high gas prices.

The July calendar saw some big-ticket items pass — just not the energy legislation. The chamber slogged through a housing foreclosure bill that ended up including a rescue package for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Democrats staged a stunning win on a bill on Medicare doctor payments by flying in an ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to cast the filibuster-breaking vote — a move that also ended up ensuring that they had the votes to override President Bush’s veto. The Senate also broke through logjams on a global AIDS measure and a foreign intelligence surveillance bill.

Yet, because of the impasse on an oil markets speculation bill along with GOP filibusters of tax extenders legislation that includes credits for renewable energy, lawmakers are leaving on a note of futility.

“The voters are frustrated that we haven’t done more,” Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “All we can do is point to 92 filibusters, how many times we brought up key legislation and they refused to vote for it. I mean, that’s the reality.”

Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) blamed Democrats for the inaction on energy.

“I think we make the argument to our constituents throughout the month of August that they don’t want to do anything that relates to domestic production or anything that would ease the supply-and-demand crisis that we have in the country right now,” he said.

That back-and-forth summarized the two sides, and those points were repeated by leaders and rank and file as they sought to spin their lackluster record in advance of the monthlong recess that will end with the parties’ presidential nominating conventions.

Democrats took heart in new polling that shows Americans blame oil companies for gas prices that have been hovering at $4 a gallon or higher. And they sought to link the Republican Party to those companies that just this week posted another quarter of record-breaking profits.

“Big Oil wants more profits,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. “We want to solve the energy crisis on behalf of consumers. I feel really confident about that” message.

But Democrats also revealed their nervousness in having to block Republicans from getting votes on a amendments intended to spur domestic oil drilling.

In a letter Monday to Senate Democratic candidates, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) wrote: “In recent weeks, many of you have asked me about oil drilling. … All indications show that Democrats can win this debate if we are proactive, but you must control the debate by taking the fight to your opponent and framing it on your terms.”

Included in the talking points Schumer shared with candidates is the Democrats’ oft-repeated refrain, “We Can’t Drill Our Way Out of the Problem,” as well as instructions to tie Republican drilling proponents to “big oil.”

“Stress that Republicans are responsible for our current energy crisis. … Your opponent’s ‘drill now, drill forever’ view was dictated by Big Oil for Big Oil,’” the letter reads.

Endangered GOP incumbents sought to put a positive spin on the chamber’s work. Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.), who is facing a stiff challenge, said he would be talking about forthcoming legislation being designed by a bipartisan group of 10 Senators.

“At home, people are going to be angry. They’re going to be frustrated. They’re going to be nervous. You may have some raised voices, saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do something about the price of energy,’” Coleman said. “I’m still hopeful that when we leave we’ll have something in front of us, so that when we come back [in September] we can take care of business.”

Similarly, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he would avoid pointing the finger at Republicans. Nelson is a member of the bipartisan group working on an energy bill.

“As long as I’m working on something in a positive, pro-active way … I won’t be part of that blame game,” he said.

Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.