Senate Republicans Go on the Offensive

Posted on May 9, 2008

By forcing a vote on the GOP energy package, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) finally made good on his party’s vow to use the chamber as a platform to highlight their “proactive” agenda rather than simply play defense. McConnell’s decision Wednesday to offer the energy package as an amendment to a flood control bill — and subsequently file cloture on it — sets up a vote that Republicans will cast as a showdown over gas prices and energy production, two issues on the voters’ minds. Senior GOP leadership aides said the move is in response to Democrats accusing Republicans of obstructionist tactics and Democrats’ intention to run out the clock on judicial and executive branch nominations, as well as all but must-pass legislation. McConnell and his Conference have found themselves largely on the defensive, and as a result, these aides said, Republicans are aiming for a more confrontational approach to highlight their agenda. Aides and lawmakers said the uproar over gas prices has emboldened many Members who otherwise might look for areas to compromise. “There’s a belief that the politics of this are changing,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “Republicans must be able to say ‘We’re offering up a solution to the gas crisis that is comprehensive.’” According to one senior aide, the strategy, which McConnell, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) outlined during the GOP retreat in January, is “much more palatable to people because in the last few weeks we’ve had nothing but cloture votes. ... And the reality is that people back home are screaming for results and the Democrats aren’t scoring any points.” Over the past two weeks, GOP lawmakers have taped 28 television and 16 radio interviews as part of the energy push, while Alexander has counseled his Conference to stick to a short set of easy-to-remember, concise talking points on energy production, conservation and environmental stewardship. Those efforts set the stage for McConnell’s parliamentary step on Wednesday. A Conference source said, “What you saw was Senate leadership using legislative maneuvering to make [it] more than just messaging, but to take it to the next level.” According to Republicans familiar with the issue, GOP leaders have discussed issues that could be used — such as the energy bill — in the coming months. Other possibilities include a new GI bill backed by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and tax-cut legislation. Republicans also have discussed the possibility of offering a substitute amendment to the war supplemental that essentially would eliminate anything not requested by President Bush, several Republicans said, particularly if it is clear that Democrats are intent on moving legislation that the president will veto. Republicans are also considering amendments to force Democrats into either public internal fights or taking difficult votes. For example, one option that has been eyed is to offer as an amendment a “gas tax holiday” bill backed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). That proposal divides Democrats, as the party’s other presidential contender, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), opposes a suspension of the gas tax holiday in favor of a tax credit. Reid is loath to have the fight spill off the campaign trail and onto the Senate floor. McConnell’s offering of the GOP energy plan to the flood insurance bill came as Democrats were prepping to unveil their legislative package. The Democratic proposal would suspend filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until the price of oil averaged $75 a barrel for three months. The plan would further revoke $17 billion in tax breaks for Big Oil companies. The Democratic proposal also includes a 25 percent tax on oil companies that don’t invest in alternative energy sources. The windfall tax initially was introduced by Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and would funnel the revenue into an account for alternative energy. Reid said he expected that his Republican counterparts would try to block some or all of the Democratic plan. “We have been able to go around a lot of the procedural hurdles that they have set up,” Reid said. Tim Taylor contributed to this report.