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Republicans Seek to Turn Democrats on Energy

GOP Exploits Drilling Divisions

Sensing popular discontent with energy prices, Senate Republicans have gone on the offensive for the first time this year by targeting a handful of moderate Democrats they hope will support a GOP-backed bill that includes expanded domestic oil drilling.

Republican leadership aides said Tuesday that they are seeking to use a messaging strategy emphasizing the need for conservation and increased domestic drilling by targeting lawmakers from a handful of Midwestern and Southern states. Republicans hope to woo enough Democratic support to move their energy package and secure their first major legislative win of the 110th Congress.

As part of that strategy, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and a small group of moderate Republicans have begun to reach out to key Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Carl Levin (Mich.). Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has begun running ads in those lawmakers’ home states criticizing Democrats’ handling of the energy issue.

With President Bush’s popularity continuing to collapse and public sentiment still distinctly hostile to Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other GOP leaders in the Senate have found themselves on the defensive for much of the past two years — and in several cases, have struggled to keep their increasingly fractured Conference together.

But with gas prices climbing to roughly $4 dollars a gallon and the public demanding Congressional action, Republicans and Democrats alike said McConnell and his colleagues have a rare opportunity not only to come together but potentially to make gains against Democrats.

“They have done a good job of coalescing around gas prices,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said Tuesday, adding that Democrats have to a certain degree aided the GOP by not adequately defining what their proposals are on drilling. “When we don’t signify what we’re for, then it is possible for them to portray us” as anti-drilling, the aide said.

For months, GOP strategists have been counseling McConnell and other leaders to use Democrats’ traditional opposition to expanded drilling as an opening to connect with voters. Unlike in years past when Republicans emphasized offshore drilling and exploration of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, McConnell and Alexander have essentially dropped calls for drilling in ANWR and have increased their emphasis on the need for expanded conservation and alternative energy development, and dubbed it the “Find More, Use Less” message theme.

Republicans over the next several weeks will argue that their Gas Price Reduction Act includes an appropriate mix of drilling and alternative energy development, according to talking points circulated by Alexander’s office. The talking points contend that while Democrats are focused “only on using less while begging other countries to explore for oil rather than finding more of our own … Republicans will do both — find more and use less.”

Republicans point out that polling, including a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, has found that voters are increasingly supportive of expanded drilling as part of a broad package of energy reforms and prefer lawmakers to keep as many options on the table as possible.

Armed with that data, Alexander is leading a push to bring Nelson and other Democratic moderates into the GOP camp on energy prices. Over the coming days, he and other moderate Republicans are expected to increase their efforts to reach out to the targeted lawmakers. Alexander’s plan is to “target them and say, ‘ANWR isn’t in this bill, so you have no excuse to not come over and join us,’” a leadership aide explained.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes outreach to moderate Democrats, Alexander plans to hold a second Conference-sponsored “policy forum” on energy issues Friday. Although the Conference forums have been criticized by Democrats as little more than messaging events with no serious policy value, the first energy forum was particularly successful in helping Republicans make their case for expanded drilling, and Conference aides said they were pleased with the amount of local media coverage the event drew.

This week’s meeting, like the first, will feature testimony from oil companies and energy experts, and will focus on the need for a broad suite of options for addressing rising energy prices. According to a draft agenda, the meeting will be chaired by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and will include testimony from Bush administration officials, Shell Oil Co. executives and energy market analysts.

The refocused GOP energy message appears to have found at least some interest among moderate Democrats. According to GOP sources, during a weekly closed-door “bipartisan breakfast” on Tuesday, energy issues were the topic du jour and the GOP energy bill was a central point of discussion.

Additionally, Nelson has been pushing for a “bipartisan summit” on energy issues similar to the “Gang of 14” judicial nominations group he helped lead in 2005 — a sentiment that has also been voiced by GOP centrists, notably Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Democrats, while acknowledging that Republicans have been successful in rallying around an offensive message, argued that they will continue to attack what they see as an over-reliance on drilling. They contend that Republican policies have led to the nation’s economic troubles and will look to portray the GOP as defenders of Big Oil interests.

“It’s been their economic policies that got us in this mess in the first place,” a Democratic leadership aide argued, adding that while “they’ve finally coalesced around an issue … the problem [for Republicans] is that of all the things to coalesce around message-wise, they’ve chosen defending an industry that’s the chief culprit for consumers paying higher prices at the pump. The oil industry isn’t on anybody’s Christmas list this year.”

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