House leaders encourage d'tente on Wilson, Barton

Faced with the prospect of losing their majority in the fall midterm election, House Republican leaders are accommodating vulnerable Republicans by force — and pressed two unlikely allies to cooperate on legislation addressing the jump in gasoline prices.

Faced with the prospect of losing their majority in the fall midterm election, House Republican leaders are accommodating vulnerable Republicans by force — and pressed two unlikely allies to cooperate on legislation addressing the jump in gasoline prices.

GOP leaders suggested that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) to work with Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who is facing a tough reelection race, on a bill to impose heavier fines on any energy company caught price gouging, said top GOP sources.

The bill passed yesterday by a 309 to 34 vote.

The alliance between Barton and Wilson is unusual because the two lawmakers have a strained relationship. In 2004, Barton tried to oust Wilson from his prestigious committee because she voted with Democrats on a motion that would have forced the Bush administration to release internal cost estimates of the Medicare prescription-drug law.

Earlier in that year, Barton infuriated some of his committee members by requiring them to apply for waivers to serve on another top-tier committee. Wilson would have been affected because she also serves on Armed Services.

Sources say Barton also is not fond of Wilson because of her rocky relationship with his Texas colleague, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R).

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of the Gulf Coast last fall, Barton did not make an effort to help Wilson pass a bill, which had bipartisan support, that would have raised penalties on companies caught price gouging in major-disaster areas. That measure was eventually included in an energy bill that barely passed the House last year.

But today, in an anti-incumbent political climate where President Bush’s approval numbers hover around 35 percent, Republicans have little room to stiff-arm their more independent-minded colleagues. Barton appears to have forged a working relationship on this one issue with Wilson.

Wilson told The Hill that House leaders started looking for ideas to combat rising gas prices after returning from the Easter recess last week, and that she and Barton, as well as the Energy and Commerce staff, had worked together on reviving her earlier proposal.

Kevin Schweers, Barton’s committee spokesman, said,  “She recently proposed to address this issue in a more comprehensive way, and Barton liked her ideas. You don’t often get a second chance to do good, but this is one and we took it.”

Not only did Wilson’s bill get a vote on the House floor but Barton and three vulnerable Republicans, Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.), Nancy Johnson (Conn.) and Chris Chocola (Ind.), co-sponsored the bill, which passed.

The House also voted to kill legislation sponsored by Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) yesterday — a two-thirds majority was needed to pass the bill — that would streamline the process for building refineries.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who often works with Democrats on environmental issues, said his staff worked over the weekend to hash out differences in Bass’s bill.

“We worked with Bass, with the Energy and Commerce staff. We were part of the process,” Boehlert said.

Republicans expected Democratic support given Boehlert efforts, said a oil industry lobbyist.

But they did not get it. Democrats whipped against the bill and only 12 Democrats voted for it.

Meanwhile, Democrats scoffed at both bills, saying the measures were too little, too late, and criticized Wilson in particular by pointing out that she accepted $373,870 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and $805,006 from the energy sector as a whole.

“Heather Wilson’s election year price-gouging bill is a ploy to distract voters from the fact that Wilson has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from big oil companies,” Madrid said in a statement.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is counting on attorney general Patricia Madrid, who has more than $826,000 in her campaign war chest, to win in the Democratic-leaning district, which Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won with 51 percent of the vote in 2004., who is facing a tough reelection race against Patricia Madrid, New Mexico’s attorney general

Madrid has attacked Wilson for other votes she has cast in the 109th Congress, most recently on the rule that brought the House lobbying reform bill to the floor.

But Wilson, a fourth-term lawmaker, former Rhodes scholar and Air Force officer, prevailed by 10 percentage points over her Democratic opponent in 2002 and 2004 and reported having $1.4 million on hand as of March 31.

Informed that Madrid had criticized her bill, Wilson said, “She’s a challenger and challengers have to say things. My job is here.”

Karrisa Marcum and Elana Schor contributed to this report.