By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Seeking to gain advantage on a potent election-year issue, Democrats are promoting ambitious ideas to lower gasoline prices, targeting key voting blocs such as farmers and autoworkers.
Party leaders are requesting that all House and Senate Democrats stage events back home over the Memorial Day recess to signal the start of the summer driving season. The lawmakers will pitch new Democratic proposals to reduce foreign oil imports and expand domestic alternative-energy supplies.
Their marching orders even include instructions for how to select locations, recruit participants and set up camera shots.
The kickoff event will take place today in Ohio, when Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) appears with Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate, in front of a giant wind turbine outside a Cleveland science center.
"Wherever you live, your gas prices are out of control, and you want to hold someone accountable for it," Reid said.
Brown is making an issue of the $330,000 in donations that Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) has received from oil and gas companies over the course of his career. Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., running for Senate in Tennessee, attacked oil companies in TV and radio spots this month.
Democrats hope energy will help in Senate races in the biofuel-producing states of Missouri and Montana, as well as in House races across the agricultural Midwest and in commuter districts on both coasts.
For a special election on June 6 in San Diego, to fill the House seat vacated by Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), House Democrats are sponsoring local radio traffic reports, using the spots to highlight Republican candidate Brian P. Bilbray's energy record from when he served previously in the House.
The rush of activity comes as the average national price for gasoline hovers around $3 per gallon. It also follows a spike in natural gas prices that caused heating bills to soar over the winter and drove the cost of nitrogen fertilizer to record highs, putting the squeeze on many farmers.
Polls show mounting voter concern about high energy costs and the dent they are making in family budgets. A Pew Research Center survey this month showed that respondents ranked high gasoline prices second only to the Iraq war as the most important issue facing the country.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed that 54 percent of respondents said they trusted Democrats to tackle gas prices, while 23 percent favored Republicans.
House and Senate Democrats are promoting separate energy packages. The differences reflect the challenge of reconciling the many regional interests and biases that influence energy debates in Congress.
The House plan focuses almost exclusively on crop-derived biofuels. "From corn in the Midwest, to soybeans in North Carolina, to sugar beets in Minnesota, we grow the crops that can be converted into the biofuels that power our cars," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), when House Democrats announced the plan May 11.
Although narrowly focused, the House plan has a specific audience in mind: conservative rural voters, whom Democrats believe are particularly disgruntled with Republican leadership and for whom high gas prices are a particular burden.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the package: "It's perfect for an Iowa open congressional seat. It's perfect for a Montana Senate race. An Indiana or Kentucky race."
At 352 pages, the Senate package includes benefits for almost every faction of the energy industry. It calls for the expanded use of flexible fuel vehicles, which can run on higher blends of biofuels, and would help local governments and individual gas stations install more biofuel pumps. Oil companies would be required to install the pumps at the gas stations that they own.
Senate Democrats would establish a nationwide renewable energy standard, mandating that 10 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. To reach that goal, they would subsidize the development of alternative energy technologies, such as wind, solar power and liquefied coal.
The third is popular in mining states such as West Virginia and Montana -- where Democrats are trying to defend one Senate seat and pick up another -- but environmental groups strongly oppose the fuel as dirty and impractical.
"It's really refreshing that they're focusing on reducing demand," said Anna Aurilio, a lobbyist for U.S. PIRG, a leading environmental group, referring to the Senate package. But the coal provision, she said, "is the worst of all possible worlds."
Neither Democratic plan requires Detroit automakers to manufacture more fuel-efficient cars, a step that many environmental groups believe would be the single most effective way to reduce fuel consumption. But Democrats don't want to undercut Sen. Debbie Stabenow's reelection in Michigan. Instead, the Senate package would provide federal assistance to the auto industry to advance fuel technologies.
"This bill doesn't do everything," Reid conceded.
Republicans dismissed Democratic ideas as incomplete because they don't seek to increase domestic oil drilling. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the energy committee, called the Senate Democrats' plan "a sprinkling of good ideas, a heavy helping of bad ideas and distractions, and a pathetic absence of any effort to increase America's energy supply."
House and Senate Republicans also have energy proposals, although they have yet to coalesce around a single package.