Alexander Eyes Energy Agenda

Posted on April 30, 2008

With gas prices on the rise and global warming on the lips of both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) is attempting to nudge his fellow GOP Senators to adopt a more expansive, results- oriented message on energy issues. Alexander said Tuesday that he hoped to inspire his party, as well as Democrats, to come up with ways to jump-start a Manhattan Project-like effort that would move the country toward “clean energy independence” –– and perhaps improve Republicans’ re-election prospects in the process. Alexander’s maneuvering appears to be a tacit acknowledgement that the GOP needs to broaden its talking points beyond energy industry tax credits and expanded oil production. “I don’t think voters are going to be very tolerant of candidates this fall who have done nothing for six months but blame each other for high gas prices. I think they’re going to be looking for serious individuals with solutions,” Alexander said in an interview. He added, “My first goal as Conference chairman is, I’d like for every Republican Senator to be in the middle of the debate about what we do about gas prices, clean air, climate change and national security. ... But my second goal is to do all this in a bipartisan way knowing that in the end none of our ideas will pass unless we have 60 votes” to overcome a filibuster. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said the party is in need of a solid election-year message and policy ideas on energy and climate change issues, and he praised Alexander’s push. “Just the idea of having a vision for it, I think, is going to be very important –– a vision that actually works,” he said. “Sure it’s important for the party, but it’s much more important for the country.” Other Republicans said Alexander’s endeavors are just the beginning of a GOP push to craft an environmental policy that dovetails with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) efforts to combat global warming –– an issue that many in the party have yet to embrace. “The challenge for Republicans is that suburban voters have not typically believed us when we’ve talked about our commitment to the environment because we don’t subscribe to the Democrats’ dictum of government intervention,” said one senior House GOP aide. “It’s important that we address [voters’] concerns head on if Republicans want to regain the majority in Congress –– and I believe we can do it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our principles.” Alexander invokes McCain and Democratic presidential primary contender Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in noting that he is not the first to float the idea of an energy-focused Manhattan Project that operates much the same as the one that spurred the creation of the atomic bomb in the 1940s. “Let’s see what they mean by that,” Alexander said of those presidential candidates. “The presidential year is maybe the best possible time to be talking about it, and maybe the new president can come in ready to go.” While Alexander’s vision embraces tried-and-true Republican proposals that would open more of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling, for example, he also aims to push Republicans toward environmentally friendly conservation policies and investment in technology to reduce greenhouse gases. Still, not all GOP Senators are buying into the idea of a broader approach. “The jury’s out,” said Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) after exiting Tuesday’s Senate GOP lunch, where Alexander gave a presentation. Inhofe has been among one of the staunchest critics of the push for global warming legislation. Among more centrist Republicans, Alexander hit all the right notes. “First of all, it’s a very broad spectrum. It’s not just about more production. It’s more comprehensive than that,” Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said. “A number of us have talked about this for a long time, and there is a hunger out there in America for there to be a real commitment to a Manhattan Project-type thing.” Martinez said he especially liked Alexander’s determination to open the door to all proposals and set an accelerated pace for the research and development project. “More nuclear power, more production to the extent that we can do it safely, clean coal technology, conservation, renewables, all of it. Throw the kitchen sink at it,” he said. “Nothing should be off limits except for that which really has a harm on our environment.” Alexander said most politicians have only talked about such an approach, but he has already begun to lay the groundwork for getting it started. “I think we should set a clear goal [of] clean energy independence and be on a path toward it in five years,” Alexander said. “And then we ought to ask the best minds to tell us what do we need to do to reach that goal and then we ought to do it.” He plans to unveil more specific policy proposals during a speech in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on May 9, with House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.). In addition to talking to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Alexander said he has already reached out to scientists and academics at the National Academy of Sciences for ideas on what elements should be included in any plan to deal with energy and climate change. Still, Alexander said his goal is not necessarily to write the Manhattan Project proposal himself but to encourage GOP Conference Members to come up with their plans and to see which ideas rise to the top. “I do see it as my job to give each member of our Conference an opportunity to put his or her best foot forward on issues that concern people,” Alexander said. “So, I think the mood of our Conference is to be in the middle of solutions and not on the sidelines.”