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Dems Stop Approps Bills To Block GOP Energy Push

Dems Stop Approps Bills To Block GOP Energy Push

By Reid Wilson - August 1, 2008

Blame it on a delayed Fiscal Year 2009 budget, on a long fight over funding for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, presidential veto threats or over energy issues Republicans are using to score political points: This year, Democrats have no plans to finish as many as ten of the twelve annual appropriations bills before Congress adjourns.

Instead, frustrated lately by Republican efforts to include provisions on energy legislation in recent appropriations bills during committee hearings, Democrats are planning to offer a massive continuing resolution next month, according to Hill aides. That bill, which would continue spending at current levels into next year, will include spending measures for all but three traditional appropriations areas, all of which are military-related.

House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey and other top Democrats have said the process for passing the spending bills simply takes longer than the amount of time the committee has left. Time ran out, Obey has said, after the chamber was held up working on supplemental funding for two wars, and veto threats from the White House targeting any bill that spends above levels requested by President Bush.

But Republicans reject that argument. "We have veto threats on these bills almost every year," said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Appropriations Committee. Rather, she said, Democrats are avoiding bringing up the bills, and have since late June, to prevent a series of votes on energy issues designed to open new areas for oil exploration. With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, Republicans pushing what they call their "all of the above" energy plan think they have found a political issue that works to their benefit.

Repeated calls and emails to the House Appropriations Committee's Democratic spokeswoman went unanswered.

The issue first erupted in late June, when Obey made clear he had no intention of bringing up the Interior Appropriations bill. That measure contains an annual renewal of a ban on the Outer Continental Shelf and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Instead, while working on a bill to provide money to the Labor and Health and Human Services Departments, ranking Republican member Jerry Lewis, of California, offered an amendment replacing it with language from the Interior bill, and would have forced a series of votes on those same energy issues.

Instead of taking the votes, on which Republicans likely would have prevailed, Obey adjourned the committee, and he has not answered repeated questions about when, or if, the hearing would continue. "This is the meat of our legislative responsibility here in Congress," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner. "They have shut down the process based entirely on their fear that we would get a vote on energy issues."

Since then, Obey has not brought up measures on which Republicans could offer similar amendments, intent on avoiding similar votes. When Lewis offered to refrain from trying to amend other appropriations bills in exchange for a vote on the Interior measure, Obey did not respond.

One measure that has made it through to a vote on the floor is a bill providing funding for military construction and veterans' affairs, which is expected to pass as Congress finishes its summer workload today. But four others -- allocating money concerning homeland security, financial services, energy and water and a combined measure on commerce, justice and science have yet to be scheduled for a floor vote despite passing the committee. All of those measures would be open to amendments on the floor, where Democrats do not want to be forced into politically tenuous votes on additional oil drilling.

Democrats face the fundamental problem that there are enough pro-oil members of their own party, along with endangered freshmen who want the issue off the table, who will abandon their leadership and vote with the GOP. "The Democratic leaderhip clearly knows that they are defying the will of the American people by not allowing a vote on increasing the supply of American energy to help bring down skyrocketing gas prices," Steel said. "They're so scared that they know there's a bipartisan majority in the House to [pass the GOP's legislation]."

That intraparty rift showed on Wednesday, when nearly enough Democrats defected to defeat a plan to adjourn for August recess by the end of the week. By a single vote, 213-212, Congress agreed to adjourn by the end of the week and return the week of September 8. Every Republican and seventeen Democrats, including vulnerable freshmen like Reps. Patrick Murphy, Harry Mitchell, Jim Marshall, Jason Altmire and Kirsten Gillibrand, voted against the measure and to stay in session.

The attack on appropriations is not the only method the GOP has used to highlight support for new and increased energy exploration. Republicans in the Senate have stalled legislation all week in hopes of getting a vote on energy issues, killing dozens of bills in the process. And two weeks ago, Boehner and ten House Republican freshmen visited an alternative energy facility in Colorado and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to highlight their proposals.

Polls show the GOP is on the right side of the issue; a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released last week showed 75% of Americans support increased oil drilling in the U.S., while 71% support increased drilling offshore and 56% support drilling for oil in ANWR. That's up eight points since a poll in early March 2006, when 48% supported Arctic oil exploration. Polls repeatedly show energy issues and gas prices are as high a priority for Americans as the war in Iraq. More than half of voters say their top priority is either the economy, energy or gas.

Still, Americans have yet to associate high gas prices with the Democratic Party, a critical connection Republicans have to make if the issue will benefit them in November. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll two weeks ago showed voters trusted Democrats to handle gas prices better by a twenty-point margin, a significant lead on any issue. But there are signs, at least, that the lead might be shrinking: In January, Democrats led by a whopping twenty-eight points.

Republicans have sent a message with their efforts to amend appropriations bills, and Boehner told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that the GOP will return to the issue in September, when Congress returns. If Democrats start seeing poll numbers moving dramatically against them, they may rethink their opposition to allowing votes on amendments. If they don't, Republicans may have found an issue on which to connect with voters this November.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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