Energy Issues to Dominate Summer

Posted May 25, 2007 at 5:24pm

Mindful that American consumers have just spent hundreds of dollars at the gas pump over the Memorial Day weekend, both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for the next big legislative fight in Congress — energy policy.

Indeed, Members of both parties say the issue may come to dominate this summer — along with the continuing debate over the Iraq War — considering the Senate is set to take up a far-reaching energy bill the second week of June and House leaders are planning to unveil what they’ve termed a “wide-ranging Energy Independence package” by July Fourth.

“The anxiety of the summer driving season is just reminding [consumers] how much we haven’t accomplished,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the Senate Democrats’ point person on energy policy. “I think now that Democrats are in control, we want to go faster. We want to get more done. We want to be more effective.”

And House and Senate Democrats already have sent out missives letting Members know how they plan to keep Congressional efforts to resolve energy issues in the public’s mind throughout the summer vacation season.

A Senate Democratic memorandum on the issue notes that legislative activity on energy policy in both chambers “will allow us to keep up the drumbeat going … well into the summer.”

The memo adds, “As we prepare for our next debate on Iraq, an intense focus on energy will again demonstrate to the American people that not only were they right to trust us to change course in Iraq, but that they were also correct to believe we would push a domestic agenda that provides a new direction for America.”

In both chambers, Democratic leaders have advised Members to use the Memorial Day recess to hold press conferences at local gas stations, visit renewable energy plants or farms, and meet with constituents and businesses affected by high energy prices. And Senate Democrats recently unveiled a new energy-themed Web site to highlight their legislation and the various forums their Members will be holding around the country in the coming weeks.

Suspicious that Democrats are trying to use the issue for political gain, Republicans are eager to draw a bright line between where the two parties stand on the issue.

“When it was politically advantageous for Democrats to complain about gas prices, they did. But they’ve been strangely silent, at least on the Senate side here, now that they’re in the majority, and [they] have done absolutely nothing about it,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Indeed, many of the Republican talking points on energy accuse Democrats of just giving the issue lip service.

“We’ve had investigations, hearings and press conferences, but not one solution other than to make price gouging illegal. That’s not the problem. The problem is a lack of [oil] exploration and refinery capacity,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide.

Even though Democrats now appear ready to tackle the issue after five months of focusing primarily on how to end the Iraq War, Republicans said the majority is pursuing an environmentalist-driven energy policy that does not balance conservation with increased energy production.

“This is a serious problem that requires serious legislation and that creates a problem for a Democrat Party beholden to a extreme constituency opposed to fossil fuel use,” said Senate Republican Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn. “At some point Americans will realize that behind all the talk the Democrats have produced almost no serious policy solutions to address this problem.”

For their part, Democrats have been counseled to point out the energy policy failures of the Bush administration and the former Republican majority.

“Years of the Administration’s policies that have favored Big Oil over the consumers have resulted in record dependence on foreign oil, leaving American families and businesses to pay record gas prices,” reads the House Democrats’ Memorial Day recess packet for Members.

The centerpiece of the Democrats’ short-term energy agenda is an anti-price-gouging bill, aimed at preventing oil companies from trying to manipulate supply and demand in a way that artificially inflates prices.

That proposal will be part of a larger energy bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring to the floor in early June. Other elements include provisions designed to increase production of renewable fuels and support for research on capturing and storing greenhouse gases.

The House already has passed several pieces of legislation, including a bill rescinding tax breaks for oil companies, the anti-price-gouging measure, and legislation allowing the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to be sued for antitrust violations.

The Senate Finance Committee will mark up a bill to repeal oil company tax breaks in late June, and that bill likely will be folded into a House-Senate energy bill compromise, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

Despite their differences, Republicans and Democrats agree that the political imperative is there for addressing rising gas prices in some legislative form.

“I think there’s a high level of frustration growing here in a bipartisan way,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). Craig added that even though he has been a supporter of the oil industry in general, “It’s difficult to see how a barrel of crude is $10 to $15 less than a year ago, but gas is a dollar higher.”

And Cantwell said the energy issue provides “an opportunity for the White House and Congress to work together.”

But no matter what they do, Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that they can’t deliver lower prices for consumers anytime soon.

“I think gas prices are likely to stay high,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). “We’re not going to be able to legislate a short-term fix to that problem. I think we are faced with high gas prices [and] high natural gas prices, and I don’t see that changing substantially over the next few months.”