Facing voter anger at home, lawmakers play gas-price blame game

At pancake breakfasts and town hall meetings across the country during the two-week congressional recess, lawmakers will come face to face with constituents who are fuming about soaring gas prices.

But Democrats and Republicans have their own separate plans to divert blame for high prices at the pump.

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House Republicans will continue their coordinated messaging blitz over gas prices in their home districts. They are organizing a series of events with their constituents that are geared toward putting the blame for high prices squarely onto the shoulders of President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats hope to use consumer frustration about high gas prices to build support for repealing billions of dollars in oil industry tax breaks. They’ll bash Republicans for blocking legislation this week to eliminate the tax breaks, painting them as shills for Big Oil.

Energy experts say federal policymakers can do little to lower gas prices in the short term, as they are tethered to oil prices, which are set on world markets. But that reality won’t stop lawmakers from arguing about the politics of the issue, as they are keenly aware of the effect that surging prices could have on their reelection campaigns.

The two-week congressional recess, which started Friday, comes amid signs that both Democrats and Republicans could take a political hit from voter anger over gas prices. A CNN poll released this week finds voters blame President Obama and House Republicans equally for pain at the pump.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) previewed Republicans’ recess gas-price strategy during the weekly GOP radio address. He blasted Obama and Senate Democrats for not taking up various House Republican energy bills that he claimed would help rein in high pump prices.

"The Senate has stalled dozens of House-passed bills, several of which would implement the Republicans' 'all-of-the-above' energy strategy to address rising gas prices and help create jobs," Boehner said in the address, which ran Saturday.

“So today I'm challenging President Obama to make good on his rhetoric and urge the Senate to allow a vote on bipartisan, House-passed energy bills."

Republicans have pummeled Obama over gas prices for weeks, arguing the president is not doing enough to expand domestic oil-and-gas production and blasting him for rejecting in January a key permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Obama, conscious of recent polls that show public frustration about the administration’s handling of gas prices, has traveled across the country to undercut the Republican attacks.

He’s called for an all-of-the-above energy strategy that focuses on expanding drilling, reducing foreign oil imports, improving vehicle fuel efficiency and investing in renewable energy. 

And he has stressed that there are no quick fixes to soaring pump prices, while also touting his administration’s efforts to expand domestic oil production.

Democrats in Congress will take a page from the White House’s playbook during the recess, echoing Obama’s remarks. And they’ll zero in on their efforts to repeal tax breaks for the largest oil companies, arguing that Republicans who opposed a Senate bill on the issue are out of touch with public frustration over gas prices.

The Senate on Thursday rejected a Democrat-backed bill to repeal $24 billion in tax breaks for the “big five” integrated oil companies over the next decade.

All but two Republicans voted against the measure, noting that it will have little effect on gas prices and casting the bill as a distraction from GOP plans to expand drilling and rein in “burdensome” regulations.

Democrats said this week that Republicans will have to justify their opposition to the bill to their constituents in the coming weeks.

“What has become clear is that Senate Republicans — or Republicans in general on Capitol Hill — have decided to ally themselves with oil-and-gas companies over the interests of the American taxpayer in this case, despite the president's best efforts to persuade them otherwise,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday during his daily press briefing.

“Those same Republicans in the House and Senate are going to have to answer to their own constituents. And you all read the polls. You know how the American people feel about this.”

Democrats also plan to argue that “excessive” speculation in energy markets is driving up the price of gas.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has scheduled a recess House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing on the issue for Wednesday. Democrats have called on federal regulators to rein in speculation in order to address high pump prices.

Gas prices reached a national average of about $3.93 per gallon Saturday, according to AAA. That’s up almost 20 cents per gallon since this time last month.