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Climate Bill Adds New Twist to Annual Gas War

With the perennial summer blame game over spiking gas prices on the horizon, House Democrats and Republicans are dusting off their energy talking points and jockeying for the political upper hand.

House Republicans are anticipating with relish next week’s unveiling of Senate climate change legislation — particularly since it is coming just in time for the start of the summer driving season — and will convene a strategy session today to hone an election-year message campaign based on the claim that Democrats’ energy policies will kill jobs and pound Americans’ pocketbooks.

Democrats also are prepared to go on the offensive, touting tangible accomplishments — such as President Barack Obama’s recent call to expand offshore drilling, House passage of a climate change bill, roughly $22 billion in energy tax incentives in last year’s stimulus bill and stricter Obama-era oversight to curb speculation in the energy futures markets — to short-circuit Republicans’ efforts and make some political headway of their own.

“We haven’t really heard anything from the other side except sloganeering,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “Republicans are better at writing bumper stickers than they are legislation.”

The nerve center for the GOP message campaign is the American Energy Solutions Group, a 31-member working group led by Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), which is slated to meet Thursday to develop an action plan for making the most of what GOP Members view as an opportunity for another round of fire directed at vulnerable Democrats who supported the House climate change bill last summer.

“With speculation that climate change legislation could be resurrected in the Senate next week, we thought it would be timely to huddle,” Pence said, adding that the group would launch a new message war against Democrats’ plans for a “national energy tax” and would also redouble its efforts to promote Republicans’ “all of the above” alternative, which relies heavily on expanding domestic energy production and promoting alternative energy sources, particularly nuclear.

Pence said he would field a team of working group members — drawing on leaders of relevant committees such as Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means, and Oversight and Government Reform ­­— to spearhead the GOP’s messaging efforts.

A Republican leadership aide said GOP House Members were “eager and ready to message on the Democrats’ misguided energy policy” because they were confident that public opinion was with them.

“The No. 1 issue in America today is jobs, and Republicans are determined to take our case to the American people that we can enact legislation that will put us on a pathway to energy independence without passing a national energy tax or destroying jobs,” Pence said. “That’s our basic message.”

Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) created the group to spearhead Republican opposition to Democrats’ climate change proposals as well as to develop alternative GOP proposals.

It’s unclear whether Senate Democrats will call up the climate change bill for floor action this year. Democrats have signaled that party leaders in both chambers consider immigration reform a higher priority for now.

Regardless, the introduction of the Senate legislation, combined with the coming summer driving season and resultant annual spike in gas prices, will give Republicans opportunities to drive their message home. “Gasoline prices are rising in eastern Indiana,” Pence said. “People are sensitive to it. They know it’s coming.”

Every year, gas prices are a talking point for both parties from Memorial Day into summer. The Energy Information Administration forecasts that average national gas prices will climb to just shy of $3 a gallon this summer driving season, up from $2.44 last summer.

Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), co-chairman of the GOP working group, noted that gas prices already were approaching $3 a gallon in his state. “Cap-and-trade — we know that that would increase gasoline prices by 50 to 70 cents a gallon. … That is the last thing we need to do in a recession,” he said.

But Democrats say they are confident that Obama’s March 31 announcement that he will expand drilling along the coastlines of the South and mid-Atlantic and in the Gulf of Mexico will allow them to co-opt the GOP message on gas prices this time around.

“Democrats have been arguing for years that we need a comprehensive energy strategy, and Republicans have had a one-note strategy which — as they summed it up — was simply ‘Drill baby, drill,'” Van Hollen said. “That was their energy strategy — and that is not enough by itself.”

Democrats say they plan to recast the debate over climate change, focusing on energy independence and green jobs. “We missed an opportunity the first time, and we will not miss it again to pitch this as a national security and jobs bill,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said.

Democrats also view a renewed debate over climate change as an opportunity to quell any lingering public discontent over the climate change bill the House passed in June.

“There are some districts where it’s still a sore spot,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said. “The more debate it gets right now, the better it will be for people in the tougher districts.”

Still, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) listed gas prices and taxes on energy as issues that he expects to incorporate in the party’s message for the 2010 midterm elections.

“There’s been a guess that gasoline is going to go to $5 a gallon this summer,” Sessions said. Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “are headed to raise taxes on gasoline and energy, and we are going to give them credit for that agenda.”

Senate negotiators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appear to have moved away from including some form of carbon tax on motor fuels in their climate change bill, a provision that Republicans had been eyeing as ripe for attack.

“Raising taxes on motor fuel during the middle of a recession is probably one of the dumbest moves anyone could make, and it would put Democrats on course to set the record for most seats lost in a single election cycle,” a Senate GOP aide said.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this story.

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