The Hill - Manu Raju
Senate Republicans aim to undercut Democrats’ claim to be the environmentally conscious party by combining their own conservation message with a longstanding push for more oil drilling.
The shift, to call for increased energy production and less oil use, allows Republicans and their presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to argue they will do whatever it takes to stop soaring gas prices. And it could throw cold water on Democratic attempts to link McCain with President Bush and the oil companies reaping record profits.
Energy policy has become a flashpoint this campaign season, and both sides are jockeying over who has the best plan to handle gas prices that top $4 per gallon.
“Republicans will do BOTH — find more oil, use less — Democrats won’t,” according to a presentation, obtained by The Hill, that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) gave at a closed-door lunch on Tuesday.
Democrats have long opposed expanded offshore drilling, highlighting environmental concerns and claims that there is enough land to drill and that more is an unnecessary giveaway to oil and gas companies.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief campaign strategist, called the GOP message a “defensive and sort of last-gasp effort.”
“Two words: oil companies,” Schumer said. “They have for seven years done exactly what the oil companies wanted.”
Republicans are trying to debunk that claim with a greener message: more investment in plug-in electric cars and trucks, less energy use by the federal government and increased oversight of market speculation on oil futures.
The move could be perceived as a shift toward McCain, who has been at odds with many in his party on cutting greenhouse emissions and has used environmental issues to distinguish himself from Bush.
McCain called for more efficiency rules in a campaign stop Tuesday in Santa Barbara, Calif., arguing that energy could be conserved in the 3.3 billion square feet of federal office space nationwide.
The Republican proposal also calls for moving away from the party’s bedrock position of emphasizing oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness and instead promoting oil-shale extraction and offshore exploration.
McCain has long opposed drilling in Alaska, but last week made a reversal to support a state’s right to allow exploration along the coastal United States.
Even though that reversal gives Democrats the opportunity to link McCain with Bush, it also allows the GOP to rally behind one party message and unite in one attack against Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democratic presidential candidate.
In one slide of Tuesday’s presentation titled “No, we can’t” — a play on Obama’s popular slogan, “Yes, we can” — Alexander tried to make the case that the presidential candidate has repeatedly voted against offshore drilling and expanding domestic supplies of oil. He called the Democrat’s support for half of the energy solution “Obamanomics.”
Following the lunch, Alexander, along with other members of the Republican leadership, echoed the talking points.
“Lamar likes to say, ‘What if President Kennedy said, “We’re not going to the moon. We’re going halfway to the moon”?’ ” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “That wouldn’t have been a very inspiring message, would it?”
Republicans increasingly see an advantage on the energy debate. With gas prices putting the economy in greater turmoil, public sentiment is starting to shift towards offshore drilling and conservation measures. But the public is also skeptical that such a move would effectively reduce gas prices.
About 30 Senate Republicans huddled behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon to craft an energy package they plan to unveil later this week. Items under consideration included the drilling and conservation measures, as well as authorized funding on carbon sequestration technologies, market-driven incentives for renewable energy and an expansion of nuclear power — all part of McCain’s campaign platform.
Republicans are urging their rank and file to take that message home during the upcoming recess, saying that positive news coverage will emerge from events to talk about more efficiency rules, like plug-in hybrid cars, along with calls for more supplies.
Democrats contend that the oil companies should first use up the 68 million acres of federal lands that have already been leased to them before opening up new areas for exploration. The House this week is taking up Democratic legislation to crack down on price-gouging by oil companies and curb speculation on the energy futures markets, as well as “use it or lose it” legislation to force the industry to drill on the already available federal lands or risk losing their permits.
The prospects of any of these measures becoming law is slim, but Democratic leaders see an advantage in forcing Republicans to take votes that could reappear as campaign slogans linking the GOP with oil companies.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to schedule more energy votes when Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess, which starts next week, and said the GOP’s rhetoric does not match its decision to block Democratic efforts to expand renewable energy production, add new conservation programs and curb market speculation.
“We have seen the Republicans running for three weeks on issues very important to the American people,” Reid told reporters. “First it was global warming, then it was gas prices, then it was doing something about renewables. And they simply wouldn’t let us have votes on these, and that’s too bad.”