Energy Dissipates for GOP Messaging Efforts

Posted September 24, 2008 at 6:40pm

Even as they acknowledged that the deepening financial crisis has pushed energy issues off the front burner, House and Senate Republicans said they will continue to make the issue a central piece of their messaging efforts in the runup to the November elections.

Republicans are in danger of losing an issue that gave them momentum this summer in the wake of spiraling gasoline prices. They said they will look for opportunities to raise energy issues and weave them into a broader economic message.

“I think it buries it for right now,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.

The Wall Street bailout, the dominant issue now, divides the conservative base, unlike the energy issue where the party was united on expanded drilling. Thune said lawmakers are trying to find a consensus on how to address the financial crisis. Thune said the GOP must explain to the public that the financial meltdown and gas prices are part of a broader economic problem. “It adds fuel to the argument on the campaign trail that we need new energy solutions,” he said.

Republicans were waiting to see whether gas prices still resonated. Members reported a heavy traffic of calls to offices about the bailout.

“Yes, the focus is on the crisis on Wall Street,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I don’t know if we pass something this week, does it sort of recede for people?”

Cornyn and others said energy issues will continue to be a major part of Republicans efforts, noting that it provides a concrete link between average Americans and growing economic woes.

While people do not necessarily feel a direct effect from the financial industry’s growing problems, “they do feel it every time they go to the pump,” one senior Republican aide said.

The Republicans’ decision to stick with energy was on full display Wednesday when they used the decision by Democrats to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling as a major political win and proof that their summerlong offensive on energy issues was a success.

“We’re here today to celebrate this accomplishment, to thank the American people for literally sweeping over Congress with their public opinion and demanding this result,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday at a GOP press event.

Likewise, House Republicans, who since midsummer have largely staked their electoral hopes on the energy issue, are signaling that they will continue to hammer their message even as they claim victory on offshore drilling.

“This is a big step, but there’s a lot more to do, and we ought to do it before we leave here,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on the floor.

A press release from his office Wednesday trumpeted Democrats’ “capitulation” and “surrender” on the drilling ban, while insisting that Republicans still had cause to fight. Lifting the bans, it said, was only one component of House GOP’s energy plan. “When will Dems allow a vote on the rest of it?” the release said.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who helped emcee the GOP’s energy protest on the darkened House floor over the August recess, said voters won’t give Democrats credit for “an act of omission.”

“All the Democrats have done is leave something out of a bill,” he said.

Other GOP lawmakers and aides acknowledged with most Americans focusing on the Wall Street meltdown and energy companies now authorized to drill almost anywhere off the coasts, the issue has lost its political potency. “I do think it defuses the issue somewhat,” Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said.

That view was echoed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). In a political briefing Wednesday, Hoyer said Republicans had not gained traction in the energy debate.

“I frankly think that message has now been overwhelmed by the economic message,” he said.

House Republicans also were trying to link the issues. On Tuesday, before Democrats announced they were dropping the moratorium, Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) said drilling off the coasts and in Alaska could generate enough money for federal coffers to make a significant dent in the cost of the Wall Street bailout.

A senior GOP aide in the Senate argued that regardless of how large a role energy plays in the coming weeks, Republicans’ efforts this summer on gas prices will have a lasting effect.

Energy “was the No. 1 issue for so long, anyone who has paid attention to the news for the last four months has an opinion,” one senior Republican Senate aide said, adding that while “it is no longer the No. 1 issue … in the voting booth, it’s still an issue.”

The aide added: “Issues don’t last forever … but the position still stands and people remember the debate.”