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Offshore Drilling Tests Pelosi

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/pelosi2.jpgSpeaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (WDCpix)

Last week, when Congress left Washington for a month-long break without addressing the nation’s towering fuel costs, there was little mystery what topic would dominate August’s political debate.

Indeed, in the five days since the exodus, the partisan battle over how to lower prices at the pump has reached a fever pitch. The White House and congressional Republicans are urging a broad expansion in offshore drilling; Democratic leaders are pushing for greater emphasis on renewable energies; and lawmakers from both parties have proposed legislation seeking some happy union between the two


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The issue is poised to be an election year monolith, with the potential to decide races right up to the White House. Indeed, the likely presidential contenders — Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have entered the fray, each charging the other with failure to offer an effective remedy to gas prices tickling $4 a gallon.

But in a competitive campaign season, with just a few legislative weeks remaining before November, major reforms of any kind are highly unlikely — particularly on a hot-button issue like offshore drilling. The underlying dynamic, then, is not which side will have its way on energy legislation, but which party can make the other look worse for doing nothing. In this highly charged political atmosphere, victory hinges less on policy than on how the debate is packaged for the public.

“Each candidate is going to say the other candidate isn’t doing enough to lower gas prices,” said John Morton Blum, history professor emeritus at Yale University and author of “V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II.” “There’ll be no end to the jockeying over this.”

The saga will prove a tough test of leadership for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The California Democrat has adamantly refused GOP calls to stage a vote to expand offshore drilling, saying the move would benefit the oil companies but not consumers.

“[T]he misrepresentation is being made that this is going to reduce the price at the pump,” Pelosi explained Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” in discussing the push to expand offshore drilling sites. “This is a decoy. It is not a solution.”

Complicating Pelosi’s position, a number of moderate Democrats — particularly those in regions with coastal oil reserves — support the proposed increase in drilling. Indeed, one reason the speaker has resisted a vote is that the measure would likely pass.

Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, said that staging the vote could harm certain Democrats hoping to set themselves apart from their Republican opponents. “Some Democrats might think that giving in on this issue would undercut their effort to really distinguish themselves from the GOP,” Zelizer wrote in an email, “particularly with McCain running.”

There is something else that Pelosi has little acknowledged: the GOP decoy is working. Nationwide, Americans approve of an offshore drilling expansion by a whopping 69 to 30 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week. Such figures put Pelosi and other Democratic leaders in the uncomfortable spot of bucking, not only their Republican opponents, but public sentiment as well.

Sarah Binder, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University, pointed out that Pelosi has been partly influenced by the politics of California, where just 35 percent of Democrats support the drilling expansion, according to a recent poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.

“In this sense, Pelosi is NOT bucking public opinion,” Binder wrote in an email, “she’s reflecting it quite well, at least from the perspective of her broader state constituency.”

Still, the national poll numbers have emboldened Republicans in their quest to paint Democrats as negligent public servants, unwilling to address high gas costs. And they’re taking their case directly to the public. “The sooner Congress lifts the ban [on drilling],” President George W. Bush said during his weekly radio address on Saturday, “the sooner we can get this oil from beneath the ocean floor to your gas tank.”

The confrontation has evolved into political theater in the House, where dozens of Republicans have taken to the dimmed chamber floor for the four days since the recess began to demand a vote on offshore drilling. Republican leaders have promised to repeat the stunt through the week and, possibly, beyond.

Pelosi has thus far stood her ground. She accuses the Republicans of misleading voters into thinking the increased drilling will lead to immediate relief at the pump. “I’m just not going to be a party to it,” she said.

Bolstering Pelosi’s argument, the Bush administration’s Energy Information Admin. reported last year that expanding offshore drilling “would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.”

Based on evidence like that EIA report, many experts say the Democrats have the substantive advantage in the energy debate. But that’s different than selling the message to voters. “The amount of ignorance on offshore drilling is sort of appalling,” said Blum of Yale.

Most Democrats favor plans to stem fuel costs by releasing some of the nation’s emergency reserves, dedicating more funding to the development of alternative fuels and targeting speculators on Wall Street.

On Friday, the debate took a turn when a group of 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans — proposed legislation containing controversial elements of each party’s energy wish-list. For Democrats, for example, the compromise bill would repeal billions of dollars in oil company subsidies to be used instead to develop alternative fuel vehicles. For Republicans, the proposal includes an expansion of drilling off of Florida’s coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a move that alienated some liberal voters, Obama expressed an openness to support increased drilling, so long as it came as part of a larger, comprehensive energy package.

Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said Pelosi is fighting to maintain the support of environmentalists, who vehemently oppose increased drilling, while also allowing Obama to hedge a bit by supporting some new exploration as a part of a far broader energy proposal. Refusing a stand-alone vote on the offshore issue, Mann said, could accomplish that dual goal.

“Whether she will be able to sustain her agenda control on this until Congress adjourns for the year is uncertain,” Mann added.

Much of the outcome, experts say, will depend on how gas prices behave between now and September, when the congressional break is slated to end. That could bode well for the Democrats. Oil prices have fallen in recent days on the news that demand is dropping as Americans drive less. Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May versus a year earlier, the Federal Highway Admin. reported last week. AAA says the average cost of gas fell to $3.87 per gallon Tuesday, down from its historic height of $4.11 on July 7.

The trend is evidence, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank quipped Tuesday, “that Congress should do nothing more often.”

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