Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 | 2 a.m.
One morning last week, as Congress remained bitterly divided over how best to lower the price of $4-a-gallon gas, Rep. Jon Porter stepped into the fray with a parliamentary maneuver that was uncharacteristically aggressive.
Porter, a Republican, is in one of the nation’s most contested reelection battles as his party tries to avoid losses in the House. He brought forward a petition that could force a vote on a potentially popular offshore oil drilling bill Democrats oppose.
The state Democratic Party back home immediately criticized Porter as come-lately, saying he was trying to play catch-up to Dina Titus, the state senator challenging him this fall, who had two days earlier unveiled her own energy plan.
But Porter’s move was in fact part of a broader Republican strategy, established months ago in offices on Capitol Hill.
Orchestrated by the House Republican whip, Roy Blunt of Missouri, the goal was to insert Republican-backed energy proposals into a floor schedule dominated by Democratic leadership. To do this, they would enlist lawmakers such as Porter to push forward one bill each week — bills calling for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or increasing conservation. For the next seven weeks, they did just that.
Republicans sought the upper hand on an issue that could be their best chance at winning voters this fall.
In both the House and Senate, the result has been a consistent Republican message: Drilling domestically must be part of the answer for rising gas prices — a position that has buoyed the party as polls show most Americans agree.
But polls also show Americans blame Big Oil for the pain at the pump as Exxon Mobil, Shell and other companies post record profits. CNN highlighted just how much the oil companies have been making during a newscast last week with the stunning figure of $1,500 per second, which it dramatized with a wall clock counting off the dollars.
While Democrats have hammered the oil companies, they have also produced a more mixed message they say mirrors the complexity of the gas-price problem. Their strategy has been to try to tax windfall oil company profits, rein in oil market speculators and open the strategic petroleum reserve.
Both parties insist alternative energy sources must be part of the mix.
As lawmakers begin campaigning at home this August having reached no solutions on the Hill, watch for each party to blame the other for the problem of $4-a-gallon gas.
Nathan Gonzales, an analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report, said it is too soon to say which party will ultimately convince voters it is on the right side of the issue.
“It’s hard to determine who is going to be held accountable for gas prices,” he said.
Republicans have the right message, Gonzales said, but the party suffers from other perceived shortcomings that have tarnished its image since 2006, when voters turned over control of Congress to Democrats. Polls show voters prefer Democrats to Republicans in Congress, including on energy policy.
“Republicans still have a larger credibility problem with the American people,” he said.
But Gonzales added, “I don’t know if Democrats can feel too confident.” Congress, run now by Democrats, still has the lowest approval rating in its history.
Porter started talking with House leaders about action on gas prices a month ago.
The whip’s office in May drew up a list of bills targeted for discharge petitions — which means they would be forced to a vote if half the House, 218 lawmakers, signed on.
As gas prices were on the rise, House Republican leaders made energy their top issue. In the Senate, a June meeting on energy policy drew dozens of senators — on time, an aide noted — launching what would become a daily energy strategy session.
“Making energy No. 1 was a no-brainer,” said a Republican leadership aide in the House.
Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign said early on that energy offered an opportunity for Republicans to change the political climate.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who runs the Democratic reelection strategy in the Senate, told reporters last week the momentum has shifted. Voters understand the Democratic message.
“It took us a few days to get our sea legs,” Schumer said. “We have many different voices here.”
Porter volunteered to file a discharge petition in late July, and introduced it the following week.
“The congressman has been hearing about this issue from the private sector and the public, and very aggressive in approaching leadership to act on this issue,” said his spokesman, Matt Leffingwell.
So far, more than 100 lawmakers have signed on. But like the other petitions, which are mainly viewed by the opposing party as political stunts, his petition has no Democratic supporters. It remains shy of the 218 signatures needed to move forward.