Republicans Struggle to Unite Over Oil Spill

Posted June 15, 2010 at 6:28pm

Congressional Republican leaders have been bashing President Barack Obama for weeks over his public relations offensive on the Gulf Coast oil spill — but the president’s Capitol Hill critics have had some messaging problems of their own.

In the lead-up to Obama’s Tuesday night address on the Gulf cleanup effort, GOP leaders’ rhetoric has been wide-ranging: They have accused Obama of responding too slowly. They have criticized him for not being engaged enough. They have tried to draw parallels with Hurricane Katrina — a political disaster for President George W. Bush. And they have charged Democrats with trying to score political points by holding hearings instead of doing more to deal with the oil spill.

And House GOP leaders came up with a new tactic this week: Go after Obama for trying to manipulate the oil spill crisis to jump-start Democrats’ cap-and-trade energy legislation.

“The American people don’t want this administration to exploit the crisis in the Gulf to advance their disastrous energy policy. We won’t cap that well with cap-and-trade,” House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) told reporters Tuesday.

Yet, despite their scattershot approach, Republican leaders have had a hard time putting Obama and Congressional Democrats on the defensive — in part because of their own support for offshore drilling and the unprecedented nature of the oil spill.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) stumbled last week in an effort to pin blame on Obama when he indicated that the administration should join BP in taking responsibility for the oil spill cleanup costs — a stance that drew fire from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), among others, and one that Boehner later clarified.

And Pence has signaled that GOP leaders may be looking for a new tack: He said Gulf Coast lawmakers and top committee Republicans will brief the Conference in a meeting today aimed at coordinating a messaging and legislative strategy after Obama’s Oval Office speech.

“Republicans simply believe it’s appropriate in the aftermath of the president’s address to the nation to bring our team together and share the best information that we have,” said Pence, who disputed the notion that Republicans have had trouble gaining traction for their offensive.

But some GOP rank and file say their party leaders’ ongoing assault on Obama is not helping to resolve the crisis.

“It’s become sort of a zero-sum game,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), one of eight Republicans who voted for House climate change legislation last summer.

“Our side is leveling criticism at the administration, and their side is so busy deflecting it, trying to blame it on previous administrations. I don’t think either of it is talking for the American people at all,” Bono Mack said.

“I’m not sure what they’re doing is helpful,” Republican Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao said of his party leaders.

“I’m in the heart of it,” Cao added, referring to the devastation facing his Louisiana district. “And my position is, I’ve been fully supporting the administration from the very beginning and they have been on top of things from the very beginning.”

Cao said he does have some concerns about the administration’s coordination of the cleanup, but by and large, he feels “very supportive” of Obama’s efforts.

Some Senate Republicans also dismissed the efforts of party leaders to pin blame on Obama for something that is out of his control.

“The problem, I think, with the oil spill is that the government’s role with these things is always secondary to the private sector. The private sector is where the experience is at,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said.

The South Carolina Republican also chided those in his party who have questioned Obama’s commitment to the issue because he hasn’t displayed as much of an emotional reaction as some may want.

“I don’t think, from a Republican position, it helps us to question his sincerity,” Graham said.

However, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), who also supported the House climate change bill, said he supported his party leaders’ criticisms of Obama over the Gulf spill. He said Obama was “slow to respond” and accused the president of “politicizing the situation” by blaming the Bush administration for the problems that led up to the spill.

Still, Lance said nobody could deny that the president has stepped up his efforts in recent days to play a more visible role in the crisis.

“It’s clear” that he has, Lance said, pointing to the fact that Obama was in the Gulf region for the past two days and capped his trip with an Oval Office address on the matter.

House GOP leaders, however, are clearly still searching for their voice on the matter. Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) are hosting a strategy session Tuesday night with Gulf Coast Republicans to assess the crisis, discuss Democratic legislation that could be brought to the floor and brainstorm possible GOP responses to the disaster.

A Democratic leadership aide said Republicans were “scrambling to cover their tracks” on the issue because of their ties to the oil industry.

“They have a clear record of defending special interests — including Big Oil — over the interests of Main Street and American families,” the aide said. “It’s clear the public wants to see an energy policy for the 21st century, and that should include ending our dependence on foreign oil and investment in renewable energy.”