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October 1, 2014

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To the left or right? Gas prices swaying tottering voters

In Washington, political fortunes at stake as the parties jockey for energy supremacy

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Congress continues to wrestle with $4-a-gallon gas this week as the two parties attempt to gain the upper hand on a top voter issue before heading home to campaign during the August recess.

Already candidates are using pain at the pump to try to move voters in their direction. Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus kicked off her challenge to Republican Rep. Jon Porter at a gas station, where she tried to link the three-term incumbent to the energy policies of the Bush administration.

Porter asked residents in his Henderson-area district to send him their gas receipts so he could show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the hardship gas prices are causing under Democratic control of Congress.

It is uncertain whether any of the proposals in Congress would have substantial immediate effects at the pump, but still lawmakers press on in hopes of making a dent in both gas prices and public opinion.

Today, the Senate will hold a pivotal vote on a bill to rein in oil market speculation, which Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, believes is responsible for up to 50 percent of the increased pump price.

Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that Democrats’ strategy may not be enough to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Polls show an inverse relationship has formed this summer between Americans’ pain at the pump and their objection to drilling. Most Americans now support more drilling.

Republicans are hammering home the message that gas prices are high because Democrats won’t drill. For anyone who just paid triple digits to fill up, such talking points could resonate.

Last week, House Democrats went on the defensive, cleverly naming their Drill Responsibly in Leased Lands Act of 2008 the “DRILL Act.” It created a use-it-or-lose-it proposition for oil companies that are sitting on federal leases in the National Petroleum Reserve near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Porter was among 26 Republicans who crossed party lines last week to vote for the DRILL Act, but it failed to get the two-thirds needed to pass. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley voted for the bill. Republican Rep. Dean Heller voted against it.

Heller joined a group of primarily freshmen Republicans tapped to join House leaders last weekend on a visit to a renewable energy lab in Colorado and the oil fields of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The trips were part of the Republican’s energy strategy, dubbed “all of the above.”

Heller is expected to discuss the trip today at a briefing with fellow Republicans as they push for more Alaskan drilling as well as renewable energy development.

In an op-ed about the trip, the Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said the renewable energy lab was a symbol of the country’s energy future, but “we’re not there just yet.”

Instead, he called for development of natural oil and gas resources in Alaska in the Arctic refuge that he said have been locked away by Democratic leaders who “worship ... at the altar ... of radical environmentalism.”

But in the Senate, Republicans have mostly given up on drilling in the refuge for now, especially given the opposition of the party’s presumed presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. They have focused legislation on oil shale development in the Western states, renewable energy and a plan to allow states to act unilaterally to lift offshore drilling bans.

But Democrats are loath to open waters along the coasts of California or Florida to drilling — a subject off-limits for many environmentalists who remember the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, which helped launch today’s protections.

Instead, Democrats have been pushing bills to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserve, penalize price gougers and require oil companies to develop oil fields under their existing leases.

Democratic leaders appear unwilling to allow the proposal on offshore drilling to go to a vote because they fear too many members of their own party would join Republicans and approve the plan. Also, holding a vote would force Democrats who oppose the ban to go on record opposing a popular idea just 12 weeks before the election.

(Already the Senate Republicans’ bill has 54 co-sponsors, including five Democrats. In fact, Titus, the Democratic candidate, favors the Republican approach on offshore drilling, agreeing the states should be able to decide.)

Pelosi told CNN on Sunday she had no plans to bring such a bill before the House.

Reid has said he is open to increasing domestic production, but insists the country cannot expect to drill its way out of the current crisis.

“This could be a chance for Democrats and Republicans to work together,” Reid said from the floor Monday. “But so far, we’ve seen more of the same from the Republican side: nice rhetoric, no action.”

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