What about energy? Democrats tailor their answer as the debate shifts

(Photo/herzogbr, Flickr)
(Photo/herzogbr, Flickr)

In a rambunctious press conference that could presage the tone of the energy debate to come, House Democratic leaders clashed with Republican supporters in Denver Tuesday over each party’s approach to offshore oil drilling.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to take up a sweeping energy proposal next month, emphasizing the importance of moving the country from foreign oil toward renewable fuels. But the (largely partisan) sticking point remains the issue of expanded domestic drilling — a dream for the oil companies and a nightmare for environmentalists. If Tuesday’s press conference is any indication, the already heated controversy has a way to go before it cools down.

Even before the Democrats took the podium in front of Denver’s historic Union Station, dozens of GOP supporters started up with the drowning chants of “Drill Here, Drill Now” — a slogan that’s become a battle cry for Republicans on the campaign trail this year, most notably with GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Pelosi responded Tuesday with jabs of her own. (“You want to drill here?” she said to the hecklers at one point. “Let’s drill your brain.”) She even reiterated her statement about new offshore drilling being “a cruel hoax on the American people.” The issue has been a thorn in her side for several weeks, and appears set to remain there for several more — at least.

Gas prices remain well above $3.50 per gallon, pinching consumers at the pump and driving up the cost of food and other living expenses. In the face of rising costs — and with winter heating bills expected to be higher than ever this year — lawmakers face pressure to do something, anything, to bring those prices down.

As recently as last month, Pelosi was adamant in her opposition to a drilling expansion. If it were only Republicans pushing for new exploration, she might have held that ground until November. But national polls have revealed a bipartisan shift toward support for new drilling. Those surveys have caused Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to soften their anti-drilling posture for fear of it haunting the party in November.

On Tuesday, in their strongest words yet, the Democrats announced their support for new drilling. “We as a Democratic Party are for expanding drilling in the outer continental shelf,” proclaimed Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.V.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

But, Democrats emphasized, such an expansion comes with qualifications. First, it must be accompanied by environmental safeguards; and second, it must come as part of a larger package that transfers billions of dollars in federal oil subsidies to the young renewables industries.

Pelosi pointed to an initiative pushed by former President Richard M. Nixon — called Project Independence — which aimed to free the United States from its dependence on foreign oil 28 years ago.

“Let this be our national goal,” Nixon proclaimed at the time, “at the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes and to keep our transportation moving.”

“It didn’t happen then,” Pelosi said, “but it will happen now.”

House Republicans are having none of it. “The Democrats’ energy record is one of empty rhetoric and broken promises,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement responding to Pelosi’s Tuesday press conference, “and that’s why they have no credibility with the American people.”

Boehner is pushing legislation that would open a far larger swath of the outer continental shelf, as well as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to new exploration. Boehner says his energy plan is more comprehensive than the one the Democrats are offering, but the GOP strategy is to carve distinctions — not similarities — on an issue that Republicans are winning publicly.

The saga highlights how public perception, particularly in an election year, holds the power to sway a policy debate even in the face of evidence that the trailing side is probably right. Indeed, a year-old analysis from the Bush administration’s Energy Depart,emt — often cited by Democrats — found that increased drilling offshore would neither increase U.S. production nor lower fuel prices before 2030.

On Tuesday, as the GOP hecklers launched another round of their pro-drilling chorus, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), perhaps inadvertently, voiced the frustration of a party that has been unable to communicate that message.

“Sophomoric chanting,” Hoyer boomed, “will not make us energy independent in America.”