Friday, June 19, 2009

House Democrats neared a deal Thursday on a bill to combat global warming, but a top party strategist warned that to sell any plan to voters they’ll need to change the way they pitch it — including curbing the use of the term “green” jobs and even talk of “global warming.”

In a strategy memo, Democratic think tank Third Way and top party strategist Stanley Greenberg warned Democrats that swing voters don’t care about fighting global warming, and said terms like “cap-and-trade” are useless. Instead, the memo suggests that Democrats tap into Americans’ optimism that clean energy can help improve the faltering economy.

“For most voters, global warming is not significant enough on its own to drive support for major energy reform,” the memo says. “So while it can be part of the story that reform advocates are telling, global warming should be used only in addition to the broader economic frame, not in place of it.”

The economic impact of a global warming bill was front and center Thursday as Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, tried to reach agreement with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.

A deal could clear the path for the Democrats’ bill to reach the House floor. Mr. Peterson and other Democrats on the Agriculture Committee have objected to the bill’s treatment of farmers and rural cooperative electricity utilities.

“We have an idea for a conceptual understanding that we are now looking at in more detail, and I think that we’re almost there,” Mr. Waxman told reporters, though he wouldn’t provide any details.

Mr. Peterson pitched the plan to about 10 fellow Democrats on the Agriculture Committee on Thursday afternoon, but declined to speak to reporters afterward.

With President Obama’s encouragement, Democrats in Congress are trying to pass a bill that would limit carbon-dioxide emissions, issue emissions allowances and set up a program for the allowances to be traded among polluters — a program called cap-and-trade.

But the strategists, in their memo, said the term “cap-and-trade” is “worse than meaningless” and is unfavorable to voters. Instead, Third Way and Mr. Greenberg’s firm argue for terms like “clean energy” and for branding the push against global warming under a new slogan of “Get America running on clean energy.”

Third Way spokesman Sean Gibbons said the research shows that clean energy can bridge the gap between hard-core Democrats who want to combat global warming and swing voters who are more worried about the economy.

The really extraordinary finding of this report is that if you live in Charlotte, if you live in St. Louis, if you live in Little Rock, you’re going to find yourself agreeing with people living in Boston and San Francisco,” he said. “The swing states have made up their minds and the swing voters want clean energy, despite the recession — that’s extraordinary.”

He also said their polling shows Democrats have a 29 percentage point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked which party is more likely to come up with a solution on energy.

Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-energy think tank, said the memo amounted to an acknowledgment from Democrats that their plans will raise energy costs, and that their strategy is to shift the focus.

“I’ve been around this town for a long time — this is an amazingly cynical document,” Mr. Kish said. “This is basically how to lie your way to victory.”

That labels can control whether a bill passes or fails is well known to both Republicans and Democrats.

Examples included the 2006 and 2007 immigration bills, which fell under the weight of the “amnesty” label attached by opponents. On the other side, Republicans attempting to eliminate the federal estate tax found their path much easier once they started calling it the “death tax.”

The 13-page strategy memo warns against promising “energy independence,” saying that could end up steering the U.S. toward energy sources with higher carbon-dioxide emissions.

The memo also has a broader warning for Democrats that voters are losing patience with government interference - which, the memo’s authors say, will dampen enthusiasm for any program seen as adding more government involvement.

“Voters are not responsive to government ‘investment’ — they do like the idea of government-sponsored ‘research and development,” the strategists said.

Even as Democrats look to change the focus to the long-term boost they say their plan will give the economy, Republicans are determined to keep the focus on short-term energy prices.

Noting the 51st consecutive day of gas price increases, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said he expects Democrats to talk about rising prices as the Independence Day holiday nears, but said the majority party’s record is slim.

“You’ll hear lots of rhetoric about the need for action, more domestic production, and diversifying our energy portfolio with alternative fuels. What you won’t hear is what they’ve done to accomplish these goals in the past year,” Mr. Cornyn said.

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