Energy bill campaign set to roll out today

Republican House leaders are expected to roll out a conferencewide communications strategy today to promote their energy bill and continue to try to shift attention from ethical questions surrounding Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

The communications strategy corresponds with the expected passage later this week of the House energy bill, which most Republicans concede would do little to lower gasoline prices in the immediate future.

The initiative was developed by staff for DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in close coordination with the House Energy Action Team (HEAT) and select Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee. It will attempt to circumvent the national media, which has scrutinized DeLay in recent weeks, in order to sell the “sweeping bill” to local newspapers and radio stations across the country.

The House energy bill focuses on increasing national production levels — most controversially by drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and creating jobs. Critics argue the bill would not address fuel-efficiency concerns or the environment.

To sell the bill, Republican House members were slated to begin a heavy schedule of interviews with local newspapers and radio stations today in an attempt to win headlines with gas prices at all-time highs. The interviews are expected continue throughout the week and will coincide with larger leadership events to promote the bill once it moves to the Senate.

Conference leadership, led by Lisa Miller in Hastert’s office and Delay aide Shannon Flaherty, have divided the country into 10 regions and, with the help of communications staff on the Energy and Commerce Committee, have developed a different communications strategy for each region.

In Northeastern states, members will focus on home heating costs and overhauling the national power grid, while Midwestern members will focus their message on the obscure issue of capping boutique fuels. These caps would limit the requirements on various blends of fuel — each region has its own requirements — allowing Illinois, for example, to use gasoline blended to California requirements if the state were enduring a shortage.

The overall tactic of targeting local media was borrowed from the Bush administration, said one senior leadership aide. The administration has continually targeted local press to sell its major initiatives, such as the current “60 Stops in 60 Days” tour to promote the need for Social Security reform. The strategy has garnered generally positive local headlines for administration priorities.

President Bush has been eager to sign a comprehensive energy bill since coming to office and urged Congress in his radio address Saturday to send a bill to his desk before the summer. In addition, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman attended last week’s markup to encourage members to pass a comprehensive bill as soon as possible.

A version of the energy bill has died in the Senate during each of the past two Congresses, but a number of House Republican aides believed that rising energy prices would give the bill necessary momentum to reach the president’s desk, even though the Senate bill differs significantly from the version expected to pass the House later this week.

“We hope that Senate Democrats this time around will support this effort to lower gas prices so that Americans can finally get relief at the pump,” said Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean. “Had we passed this bill several years ago, there is a good chance gas prices would be lower today.”

While many Senate Democrats opposed the bill, some Republicans — including Sens. Judd Gregg (N.H.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), and Susan Collins (Maine) — also rejected the legislation.

One-third of the House Democrats on Energy and Commerce voted last week to support the legislation, which is widely expected to pass when it comes to the floor this Thursday. If it gets similar support during the floor vote, it would mark the sixth time this year that Republican leadership has passed legislation with the support of more than 40 Democrats. The Real ID Act, class-action reform, bankruptcy reform, permanent repeal of the estate tax and continuity in government all passed with more than 40 Democratic votes even though Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) voted against each measure.

During the recent Energy and Commerce Committee markup, a partisan flare-up gave way to an unusual display of bipartisan support for Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas).

Tensions came to a head Thursday night as the markup was winding down when committee Democrats complained that Barton had slipped Rep. Heather Wilson’s (R-N.M.) American Indian energy provision into the bill without proper review.

At that point, Barton was so emotional and exhausted that he briefly teared up and told the committee that he was following procedures and had not just slipped in the provision, according to people at the committee.

He argued that the provision, which would encourage energy investment on tribal lands, was unchanged from a similar provision that had been attached to the two previous versions of the energy bill that had passed the House during earlier sessions. Democrats relented and the provision was left in.

Then, after remarks by fellow committee members, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) rose to thank Barton for allowing Democrats the chance to comment on the bill and offer their input, at which point the Democrats on the committee gave Barton a standing ovation.