Gasoline Prices Energize GOP

Posted July 25, 2008 at 6:11pm

High gas prices might be decimating the economy, but they are proving to be just the tonic for House Republicans.

The Republican Conference’s singular focus on energy — and expanding oil and gas drilling in particular — has shoved a simmering family feud over earmarks and talk of leadership races deep into the background, and it has brought a new spring to the step of rank-and-file Members.

After three special election losses earlier this year, Republicans were angry, irritable and glum. And it certainly didn’t help when the Conference’s “Change You Deserve” agenda slogan was found to be the same as an anti-depressant’s.

But Members interviewed by Roll Call say the dark mood has lifted a bit. Although they still see a tough electoral environment this year, the gas prices debate has rescued them from their funk.

“Things were dismal last year and earlier this year, but things are looking up now,” one Member said. The Member said there was a flurry of chatter about changing leadership after the three special election losses, but that has subsided with the focus on energy. “Now the team seems to feel like it has momentum.”

“We’re doing pretty well and we’re blocking and tackling on the issues we believe in,” Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) said.

Having a common enemy helps — and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) refusal to allow votes on opening up new land to drilling despite broad public support has helped unite the Conference.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have kept the heat on and held together their Conference repeatedly to vote down Democratic energy bills. Democrats are offering the bills under suspension, which allows them to be considered without amendments. At the same time, the bills need two-thirds vote, giving the minority the power to kill them.

“Skyrocketing energy prices have united Republicans in Congress with a level of enthusiasm that mirrors the anger that the American people feel about the price at the pump,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for Blunt.

A re-energized Boehner said he hasn’t seen an issue as clear-cut as the drilling issue since he’s been in Congress, and he said he senses fear on the part of Democrats.

“They are making excuses one day after another,” Boehner said. “We’re going to continue to demand a vote.”

Democratic leaders “are scared to death that a drilling vote might occur, and that it would pass the House.”

He dismissed last week’s bill to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as “a joke” as GOP leaders rounded up the votes to shoot it down, and he suggested Pelosi is avoiding bringing up drilling because it would blow up the Democratic coalition.

Democrats also helped unify Republicans by failing to bring even a single appropriations bill to the floor until this week’s expected votes on the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill. That decision by Pelosi avoided votes on oil drilling amendments but also minimized the internecine bloodletting between anti-earmark conservatives and earmark-loving GOP appropriators.

The Conference also has started to separate itself from President Bush, blasting his flip-flop last week on the housing bailout in one of the few issues where they’ve staked out a stand to the right of the president.

Party leaders have also brushed off bruising defeats — such as when their own Members abandoned them en masse on the doctors’ Medicare payment fix — by quickly returning the focus to energy.

The gas prices issue has taken on such overriding importance within the Conference that it has crowded out nearly every other issue.

The rollout of the Conference’s election-year agenda items, for example, have been relegated to afterthoughts.

The Conference came out with its health care agenda last week — a grab bag of conservative options aimed at using market forces to lower costs.

Aside from a few press releases, the agenda has faded into the woodwork.

It’s all about energy.

Democrats, meanwhile, said they are still winning in the polls and point to the split between Republican leaders and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), their presumptive presidential nominee, on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s against it; most Republicans are for it.

“Despite their strenuous efforts, the latest polls show Democrats with a double-digit lead on who voters trust on energy issues,” said Stacey Farnen Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “That should put them back in their funk.”

Republicans, however, think they’ve got Democrats running for cover.

“We’ll see how comfortable they are continuing to deny the will of the American people after hearing for a month from their constituents,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “We’re on the right side of the issue. We’re on the side the American people are on, and it’s a good feeling.”