By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Four-dollar-a-gallon gas has done something that few Republicans thought possible just a few months ago: given them hope.
United behind a renewed push for offshore oil drilling, Republican members of Congress and the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, think they have found their best political issue of the 2008 campaign.
McCain strategists and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill say the issue, which polls suggest Americans favor by healthy margins, lets Republicans demonstrate their plans to address the anger over high gas prices as well as the broader economic distress that many voters feel.
Because most Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama, are opposed to increased drilling, McCain and the GOP have already begun casting their rivals as unconcerned about gas prices and unwilling to wean the country from foreign oil.
"The failure of Senator Obama to understand the need to increase domestic production is just stunning, and that's going to be a real hurdle for him to overcome, because everybody gets it," said Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior McCain adviser.
The risks for Republicans became clear this week, however, when a McCain visit to an offshore oil rig was quickly scuttled in the face of Hurricane Dolly and a massive fuel oil spill in the Mississippi River near New Orleans.
McCain's support for offshore drilling also threatens to unite environmentalists against him, after he spent months portraying himself as a friend of the environment by endorsing the basic tenets of those who want to wage war on global warming.
"Apparently, hundreds of thousands of gallons of spilled oil, dead fish and oil-covered birds aren't ideal conditions for peddling a misguided plan for more offshore drilling," said Cathy Duvall, the national political director of the Sierra Club. "Unfortunately, the risk for such spills -- and far worse -- would only increase if John McCain and George Bush get their way and allow Big Oil to begin the 'exploitation' of our coasts."
McCain and his advisers reject such criticism, saying the safety record for deep-sea oil rigs is very good. The oil slick in the Mississippi River was caused by a collision between a tanker and a barge, not a leak at an oil rig.
"I'm sorry we were unable to go to an offshore oil rig, because I think that drilling offshore is a vital step in addressing the price of oil and America's energy needs," McCain told reporters Thursday.
Republicans have also sought to gain traction on the issue by portraying Obama and Democrats as the "do nothing" party when it comes to solving the nation's energy needs.
Obama aides say the Democrat supports legislation that would encourage oil companies to drill in offshore areas that are already approved but not used. And aides cite his plan for a $20 billion economic stimulus package that would provide rebates that people could use to pay for gasoline as well as efforts to crack down on oil speculators who drive up prices on the world market.
"There's a real choice in this election between John McCain's promise to continue the Bush approach of trying to drill our way out of our energy crisis . . . and Barack Obama's plan to provide meaningful short-term relief for our families and to make a historic investment in alternative energy," said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.
Republicans say that is not enough.
More than 100 House Republicans marched onto the Capitol steps this week to introduce the American Energy Act, which includes drilling offshore and in the oil shale of Western mountain regions but also contains increased tax benefits for businesses and families that reduce their energy consumption.
Republicans say their embrace of more domestic drilling and a dramatic increase in funding for the development of renewable fuels puts them squarely in line with voters, who polls show support both policy initiatives, especially when linked to concern about years of gas at $4 a gallon or more.
In a recent CNN poll, 73 percent of those surveyed said they favor increased offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. A Pew Research poll taken at the end of June found 60 percent saying that "developing new sources of energy" should be the priority over the 34 percent who favored "protecting the environment." The Pew poll also found voters split between exploring for new energy and expanding conservation.
If nothing else, the cause for domestic drilling has provided a significant amount of unity among congressional Republicans, who had spent most of this year fractured and receiving advice from leaders to look out for themselves politically.
Democrats reject the idea that Republicans and McCain have made any inroads on the energy issue. Saying they feel no pressure to give in on drilling legislation, Democratic leaders said their polling data show that the public views President Bush as responsible for high gas prices and that none of their candidates for the House or Senate have suffered any political damage from the constant GOP attacks.
Democrats point out that voter support for drilling plummets when surveys note that drilling would not produce new, usable gas for years and would not immediately affect gas prices at the pump.
"We think that the public understands that you can't drill your way out of the problem," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters last week. "We think the Republican slogan is 'Big Oil now, Big Oil forever.' "
Instead, Schumer suggested that other than a few smaller legislative items Democrats are trying to push -- which are being blocked by Republicans in search of a comprehensive bill including drilling -- Congress will not move on a large energy plan until after the election.
If Obama is elected and Democrats gain larger majorities in Congress, Schumer said, "You will get, for the first time, a real energy policy."