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GOP Relying on Forums to Get Heard

Senate Republicans have decided to rip a page from their Democratic predecessors’ playbook by broadcasting their message at partisan-tinged hearings, aiming to amplify their bullhorn that’s been muffled in the minority.

The first of the hearings was Friday, when the the GOP held a forum on rising gas prices.

“If you can’t get the various committees of jurisdiction to conduct hearings on these issues … this is a parallel way of doing that, which the Democrats did to some effect when they were in the minority,” Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.

Indeed, Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) began holding Democrat-only hearings in the previous Congress to spotlight Democratic concerns about management of the Iraq War. Several of those hearings, which he still holds with Democrats in the majority, received media coverage for revelations of abusive and fraudulent activities among Defense Department contractors.

Dorgan said he welcomed the “flattering” imitation. “Any discussion or any forum about energy prices, it seems to me, is productive and useful,” he said.

Friday’s GOP-only forum was engineered by Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) as a way for Republican Senators to hear from witnesses who largely supported Republican policy proposals to lower gas prices. The hearing was broadcast on C-SPAN.

“This will be one way for the American people to know more about our message, and we’ve got plenty to say, and we want to be on offense,” Alexander said. “We’re likely to do it on other issues as we go … issues that affect the family budget.”

Referencing the Senate GOP’s defeat last week on a legislative package aimed at spurring oil production, Alexander said he hoped the hearing might broaden the bill’s appeal.

“If we can’t get more than 42 votes for our answers on the Senate floor, we can carry our message stronger in the states and in our forums here, and maybe we’ll get a few more votes,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chaired Friday’s event and sits on the Energy and Natural Resources panel, said being in the minority makes it harder to get your policy proposals aired in regular Senate committees.

“When you want to get things done on a sooner-than-later basis and you’re in the minority on a committee, sometimes it just takes a little bit longer to get to your agenda item,” she said. “I think there were some that felt that this is the issue of the day. It’s what everyone is focused on, so let’s have an opportunity to put out the proposals that we’re hearing from people on and ask them questions about it.”

Bill Wicker, spokesman for Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), said Republicans have had plenty of opportunities through the regular committee process to explore oil production and other ideas for lowering gas prices.

“By our conservative count, Senate Energy has had more than a dozen hearings on oils and fuels in this Congress, on topics ranging from the [Outer Continental Shelf] to the domestic energy industry,” Wicker said. “Americans … want Congress to find common ground and bipartisan solutions. I doubt they will see messaging events and other steps that increase political polarization as real responses to their concerns.”

Wicker noted that last week’s Energy hearing on oil shale was held at the request of ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Similarly, Dorgan argued that Democrats have taken their oversight responsibilities on energy and other topics more seriously than Republicans, who neglected to hold hearings on Iraq War issues when they ran the Senate.

“The difference here is we have an Energy Committee, and we’re holding a lot of hearings on energy policy in our committee,” Dorgan said. “That was not the case with the contracting in Iraq.”

Murkowski and Alexander acknowledged that the forum might be criticized as a partisan event but said it was needed to fully air GOP policy proposals.

“I think that’s a legitimate concern,” said Murkowski, who said the forums should be as balanced as possible. “If we’re going to call these forums, we’ve got to be very cognizant of who we’re bringing in, what we’re asking them, and the direction we’re taking it in. Or you do kind of get branded into that, ‘Hey, this is just a podium for Republicans to beat their chests on some particular issue.’ I think we’ve got an opportunity to do something right, and we’ll see how these come together.

The forum was attended by Domenici, Murkowski and Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), John Warner (Va.), Roger Wicker (Miss.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) Wayne Allard (Colo.) and Ted Stevens (Alaska). Stevens testified about the need to drill in his state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a proposal that has repeatedly been defeated by Democratic-led filibusters.

Future GOP forum topics could include electricity prices, food prices and the rising cost of health insurance, Alexander said.

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