Congress left town this week for the August recess without considering comprehensive energy legislation or taking action to lift the congressional moratorium on offshore drilling - a move that could produce major political fallout for Democrats. Republicans hope voters make the connection between pain at the pump and the majority party blocking these votes and skipping town without addressing the energy crisis in a meaningful way.
But drawing that nexus is more challenging than you might think. For one thing, most Americans are more interested in lower gasoline prices than assigning political blame. They just want relief. Moreover, with congressional approval at or near an all-time low, most Americans simply don’t have confidence that anyone in Washington can fix the problem.
Yet here is an undisputable fact: In order to get lower prices, we need more supply and less demand, and we need legislative action - something Republicans call their “all-of-the-above” approach to achieve that outcome. Democrats’ insistence on blocking a vote on drilling has more to do with protecting environmental special interests than really protecting the environment or solving the energy crunch. And for that, they should pay a political price.
Despite the communications and procedural challenges of minority status, the GOP produced a sustained and systematic effort over the past two months to link Democratic obstruction - especially on the offshore drilling issue - to record-high gas prices. And as July ended, there was evidence it was working, and that the pressure to allow a vote in September when Congress returns may force the Democrats to change course.
On the House side, Republicans began the week by specifically linking the scheduled vote to adjourn for the August recess with the gas price crisis and Democrats’ blocking a vote on offshore drilling. It’s not easy to tie a procedural vote on something as routine as adjournment to gasoline prices, but that’s exactly what Republicans tried to do.
Calling the Democrats the “Drill-Nothing Congress,” House Republican leader John Boehner told his colleagues, “Throughout the summer, American families have struggled with the burden of high gas prices that are the direct result of Washington policies. Throughout the summer, Republicans have asked for a vote on an all-of-the-above energy strategy built on increased exploration, conservation, and innovation - the reforms Americans want. And throughout the summer, the Democratic leaders of Congress have done everything but allow one.” Mr. Boehner urged Republicans to vote against an adjournment resolution if the Democrats continued to block the GOP energy bill. “The House should not adjourn for the August District Work Period until a vote has taken place on the energy reforms the American people want,” he said. “If the Democratic majority refuses to allow a vote… it will be a vote against the American people and a vote against American energy independence.” Even was mystified by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s obstructionism. She wrote in an editorial last week: “If drilling opponents really have the better of this argument, why are they so worried about letting it come to a vote?”
The Republican tactic nearly worked. In a nail biting 213-212 vote on adjournment (including 17 Democratic defections who voted “no” on the routine resolution to adjourn), Democrats won the battle - but may lose the war. They had to pull out all the stops to avoid an embarrassing defeat, forcing many of their politically vulnerable members to vote to adjourn instead of facing a tough vote on domestic drilling. Even the Speaker of the House - who by tradition only votes on highly important matters - cast an “aye” vote for adjournment, helping secure the razor-thin Democratic victory.
On the Senate side, a deal to bring up energy legislation before the recess also collapsed late in the week, when Democrats withdrew an offer made earlier to give Republicans an opportunity to offer four amendments, including one on domestic drilling. The compromise coming undone in the Senate was filled with political intrigue. Several Hill sources told me Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid received pressure from the Obama campaign to renege because Mr. Obama doesn’t want to face the drilling question.
This battle - and its framing from a communications and political perspective - will continue to evolve as lawmakers go home and face constituents angry about gas prices. But here’s the irony. Democratic leadership and the party’s presumptive nominee talk a lot about but they’re not willing to even allow votes on changes that will ease your pain at the pump.