- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Republicans’ plans to blame Democrats for obstructing the president’s agenda to gain ground in upcoming congressional races have backfired, some experts say, and instead, Republicans have slowly been losing the issues they had once hoped to highlight.

Lobbyists and campaign experts said Democrats can’t be fully blamed for obstructing the contentious energy bill, which has lingered in the Senate for more than a year. And Senate Democrats undercut naysayers when they made a deal with President Bush to clear the way for votes on 25 judicial nominees.

Even though Democrats have successfully blocked tort-reform legislation, that issue hasn’t risen to the level of a hot election issue.

Jeff Eshelman, spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said the energy legislation “has been a difficult process for 10 years, and Republicans and Democrats have been in charge of the Congress in that time.”

He said the three major issues for his industry — oil-drilling access on non-Park Service federal land, accessing new capital resources, and eliminating outdated regulatory obstacles — all have bipartisan support.

Lobbyists for other energy issues said obstruction charges don’t stick because the breakdowns don’t follow party lines.

“There are political differences, some partisan, but most of it is regional,” said an official with the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The New Englanders don’t get a lot out of it, with Democrats and Republicans there upset about it.”

As gas prices have risen, Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress and the White House, face criticism from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry over failing to control those prices. Republicans responded by blaming Senate Democrats, including Mr. Kerry, for leading a filibuster against the pending energy bill.

Meanwhile, corn growers in the Midwest states of Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere will reap big-business benefits if the bill passes with a federal standard for ethanol, a corn-based fuel additive.

“The blame needs to be put on the fact that politicians are not doing what needs to be done for this country. Whether Bush or Kerry is elected, the fact is this needs to be done,” said Rhondalee Royce, spokeswoman for the National Corn Growers Association.

As for tort reform, some say it’s a non-issue.

“I think the question of the economy and the war are driving all else. Judges and tort reform are beneath the radar screen,” said David Lubin, political science professor at American University.

Still, House Republicans said the blockade has been mostly Senate Democrats.

“The House of Representatives has done its job … Democrats (and a few Republicans) in the Senate have blocked the national energy plan, and continue to do so,” said a Republican staffer with the House Resources Committee last month.

Republicans have said they believe voters do care about obstruction, and believe a campaign message can be crafted. They point to 2002, when the obstruction strategy worked against then-Democratic Sens. Max Cleland of Georgia and Jean Carnahan of Missouri, both of whom were defeated.

Republican challengers highlighted the two incumbents’ opposition to Mr. Bush’s homeland security legislation, and won their seats.

But Senate Democrats said the obstruction charge simply isn’t true this year, mainly because of the many deals that have been made in the last few months on the highway bill and on the energy bill’s tax provisions, which passed as an amendment to a corporate tax provisions bill.

And Mr. Bush all but killed obstruction arguments on his judicial nominations last week when he agreed to a deal with Senate Democrats to dislodge 25 of 32 judicial nominees for a final vote. In exchange, Mr. Bush agreed not to make any more recess appointments — the president’s constitutional authority to temporarily place a nominee on the bench without Senate approval.

The deal infuriated conservatives, and left Democrats saying it proves charges of obstruction are false.

“I will simply refer you to many comments made by leadership on the other side that there is a concern about agreements that would preclude the opportunity for some of these people to level the charge they oftentimes make at Democrats, that we are obstructing progress,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, when asked about the deal.

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