Democrats see 'big oil' as foil in Senate energy and climate legislation debate

The controversial issues of energy and immigration reform have created a tricky problem for Senate Democrats on the question of strategy.

Democrats are split over how to approach the biggest issues on President Barack Obama’s agenda as they prepare for the final legislative stretch before the midterm elections.

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Senior Democratic aides are planning a strategy for the energy and climate debate similar to their successful handling of Wall Street reform, in which they used aggressive tactics to pressure the GOP.

They want to make the energy debate a referendum on big oil companies and the nation’s dependence on oil. They believe this to be a potent line of argument in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Centrist Democrats disagree, saying that drawing a sharp contrast with Republicans will only make the debate more partisan and alienate the potential GOP allies needed to pass comprehensive reform.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic Senate leaders doubt that playing nice with Republicans will yield much cooperation.

“The reason we were successful on Wall Street reform is that we were able to show a sharp contrast,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “We had a foil — Wall Street — and we had an enabler — the Republicans.”

Democratic leaders see a similar dynamic in the energy and climate change debate.

“You’ve got a very unsympathetic target in big oil,” said the aide. “Big oil earns billions in profits and it doesn’t invest in the safety mechanism necessary to keep millions of gallons from spreading along the Gulf Coast.

“And you’re going to see a Republican Party side with big oil,” the aide added.

Centrist Democrats argue that energy and climate change is substantially different than Wall Street reform. Polls have showed widespread anger at big Wall Street banks but public opinion over how to address energy and climate change is mixed.

“People were angry at Wall Street and I don’t think there’s the same anger aimed even now at the oil industry,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Kessler and other centrists believe that Reid needs to push a unifying message that energy and climate change reform will spur the economy.

“This has got to be about an economic message, creating clean-energy jobs and having America lead the world,” said Kessler. “This can’t be about evil corporations; it’s got to be about American opportunity.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, a centrist from Indiana, said: “It’s always easier to take a firmer line when the public is behind you and the polls indicate that financial regular reform is popular.”

Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Reid, noted that Republicans have consistently opposed the Democratic agenda even on traditionally routine matters.

“We’ve seen unprecedented delay and obstruction of virtually everything,” she said.

Lachapelle said the communications strategy for energy and immigration reform would not be finalized until those issues are closer to reaching the Senate floor.

Reid has scheduled a special caucus meeting after the Memorial Day recess for Democratic senators to hash out their plan on energy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill in a sit-down interview Thursday that the Gulf oil spill would likely scuttle a potential bipartisan compromise on energy and climate legislation because it would destroy support for expanded offshore drilling.

Graham said expanded drilling is crucial to winning his support for a broad reform package, and so far he is the only Senate Republican to negotiate intensively on the issue.

But senior Democratic strategists in the Senate believe the spill could help persuade the public that Congress needs to act on the issue, putting pressure on Republicans.

“Because of the enormity of the situation in the Gulf, we’re in a good place for a message on climate change that we have to do something,” said the senior Democratic aide.

Obama recently visited Senate Republicans to extend an olive branch and ask for cooperation on energy and immigration.

In the following days, Reid continued to bash the GOP on issues ranging from funding the war in Afghanistan to dealing with the national debt.

“This week they did a number of things to try to lay blame on us and make us look dumb,” said a Senate Republican aide.

“Reid held a press conference to try to suggest we were playing politics with the war funding bill; there was a press conference criticizing us on the extenders package; Reid then had a press conference on the debt and criticized us for not working with them more,” the aide said.

Reid accused Republicans of lacking sympathy for the unemployed.

“We’ve had people make ridiculous statements on the Republican side, saying they’re bums, they’re hobos,” Reid said Wednesday.

Immigration reform presents Democrats with another strategic question.

The aggressive tactics that helped them pass Wall Street reform through the Senate seem less applicable.

“In a perfect world, the foil for immigration would be the governor of Arizona but polls show that overall, people — at least right now — are OK with that law,” said the senior Democratic aide. “There’s not as strong a foil as big oil.”

Senate Democrats believe nevertheless they can draw a sharp contrast with Republicans on the issue. They say that the country recognizes the immigration system is broken. Democrats hope to portray themselves as the party willing to fix the problem and Republicans as obstructionists.

But Kessler of Third Way argues that while this might make for good campaign talking points, it’s not an effective strategy for passing legislation.

“For Democrats to win on immigration, they have to tell people that what they’re doing is in the broad interest of taxpayers and citizens and not because they’re trying to please a particular constituency,” said Kessler.

Kessler said if Democrats are seen as trying to boost their standing among Hispanic voters at the expense of Republicans, “it turns off people in the middle.”

Graham, who was also the lead Republican negotiator on immigration reform, said he pulled out of talks for that reason.

“I don’t mind taking heat but I’m not going to take heat and reward political maneuvering that’s designed not to solve problems but help people with their own elections,” said Graham, who was criticized at home for cooperating with Democrats. “My goal is to fix problems, not try to bolster Harry Reid’s turnout model.”