Free of the GOP presidential primaries that frequently forced their agenda onto the sidelines in favor of social issues, congressional Republicans return to Washington on Monday refocusing on bread-and-butter matters, particularly high gasoline prices.
Returning from a two-week break Monday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wants the spring legislative session to focus on several bills to allow more domestic energy exploration, believing that the issue has become an Achilles’ heel for President Obama.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are forcing a vote Monday on the so-called Buffett rule, in which those earning more than $1 million a year would require a minimum tax of 30 percent even on the sort of investment income that billionaires such as Warren Buffett use to reap most of their money.
For Democrats, this is part of their effort to campaign on a message of economic fairness, suggesting that Republicans hide behind deregulating oil drilling and natural gas exploration as a paean to multibillion-dollar energy companies. But Republicans counter that the issue of high gas costs connects more viscerally with voters in tough economic times.
Starting this week, the House GOP will try to push a temporary highway funding bill that includes mandatory approval of construction of the Keystone energy pipeline, setting up a negotiation showdown with the Senate. In addition, committees are moving bills that would freeze regulations on refineries and also forbid Obama from releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to keep costs down, a move that Republicans say would only be done for political expediency as the November election draws near.
“Gas prices have doubled on President Obama’s watch, and the American people are asking why he and Senate Democrats are blocking more American energy production,” Boehner said in a statement. “Whether the president joins us or not, we will continue to fight for common-sense solutions that lower gas prices and create new jobs.”
Republicans believe that the winter surge in energy costs — the average price of a gallon of gas jumped nearly 70 cents, to about $3.90, from late December to mid-April — provides them with a political opening to go on the offensive against Obama.
Perhaps sensitive to the criticism, the White House announced Friday that it was forming a working group with representatives from a dozen agencies to coordinate oversight of drilling, with an emphasis on natural gas exploration and its controversial technique known as “fracking.” Republicans have argued that it is a cheap, readily available technique to get more energy sources here at home. They dismiss the working group as just another study that would not deal with the immediate energy needs.
Senate Democrats reject the House highway plan as pointless and believe Boehner should allow a vote on their bipartisan highway plan that won nearly 80 votes, providing for better roads and helping spur jobs.
“If Republicans are serious about putting people back to work, they will pass the Senate’s bipartisan highway bill rather than bog it down further with political add-ons,” said Brian Fallon, spokesman for Senate Democrats, rejecting the Keystone issue as something that Obama has said needs further study.
In addition, Democratic strategists note that gas prices have held steady the past few weeks and may be ready to drop some, possibly taking steam out of the Republican argument.
GOP pollster David Winston said the last concerted campaign by Republicans on the cost of gasoline, in the summer of 2008, came when the economy was still considered relatively good — in August 2008 the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent.
Now, Winston said, “there is a real economic dynamic that didn’t exist then.” His most recent poll, which is being distributed to Boehner’s GOP conference, shows that congressional Republicans hold a seven-point edge, 48 percent to 41 percent, over Obama on how they are handling the energy issue. More importantly, independent voters side with Republicans, 47 percent to 32 percent, by a wider margin.
So long as Republicans can connect the gas price issue to the broader economy, they have an edge over Democrats, particularly because voters appear to favor a two-pronged approach of more drilling now and pushing for alternative energy sources for the future, Winston said. “There’s a much more realistic sense of we’ve got to meet present energy needs.”
Obama, using something Boehner coined in 2008, has talked about an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy issues, but it has not entirely sunk in with the public.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, pitched his legislation to stop new regulations on refineries in Saturday’s GOP response to the weekly presidential address — the seventh such GOP response in the last eight weeks to discuss gas prices. He called lower gas prices “essential to job creation and economic recovery.”
“We’re knocking at the door of a brighter energy future; one that promises abundant, secure and cheaper North American supplies, as long as Washington doesn’t create artificial obstacles,” Upton said. “That is what Republicans are working toward, and we invite the president to join us.”