As GOP leaders bluster about gay marriage, flag burning and the "death tax," Democrats are struggling to get a word in edgewise about the bevy of proposals they've been drafting to address more substantive national concerns -- namely soaring gas prices, dependence on oil from an increasingly volatile Middle East, and global warming. These are among the hot-button election-year issues that Republicans are trying to dodge by throwing red meat to their right-wing base.
Dems are pulling out all the stops -- including Robert Redford -- to get some airtime (if not room on the congressional calendar) to advance their energy platform. Senate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in recent weeks have announced or introduced a number of broad legislative initiatives promoting cuts in U.S. oil demand and boosts to alternative-energy development.
Next week, Reid and Redford will share the stage at an energy-independence event at the Washington Hilton, part of a three-day progressive "Take Back America" conference. They'll stand alongside enviros and steelworkers to outline plans intended to create 3 million jobs in clean-technology industries and wean America off its oil addiction. It's a clear election-year gambit to help Democrats stake their claim on the energy issue and address concerns about high gas prices that many liberal candidates hope will hobble their Republican opponents.
In a sense, the publicity event takes a bullhorn to the goals of the Clean Energy Development for a Growing Economy (Clean EDGE) Act, a Senate Democratic energy plan devised by Reid's staffers and introduced in mid-May by Cantwell with 23 Democratic co-sponsors. (Cantwell's office now says that 40 of 44 Senate Democrats have expressed support for the basic principles of the bill.) It proposes to cut U.S. dependence on oil imports 40 percent by 2020, set targets for production of electricity from renewable sources, remove a sizable chunk of subsidies from the oil and gas industry, and hasten the development of infrastructure for the distribution of gasoline alternatives such as ethanol.
Enviros applaud many elements of the bill, emphasizing that it contains no calls for oil or gas drilling. "On the whole, the bill represents a big step," says Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It's a clear contrast to the hapless Republican energy plan put forward by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in late April, which promoted drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and promised $100 taxpayer rebates to soften the pinch at the pump. That proposal was widely mocked and quickly jettisoned.
"Clean EDGE basically says the Democratic leadership stands for using less oil, the Republican leadership stands for drilling more," said Anna Aurilio, legislative director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group. As Reid put it, "[D]rill, drill, drill is not going to deliver the results we need."
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, reinforced the drill-vs.-conserve rivalry by dismissing the Democratic plan as "a sprinkling of good ideas, a heavy helping of bad ideas and distractions, and a pathetic absence of any effort to increase America's energy supply" -- which, in Domenici's eyes, would mean drilling.
If there is a pathetic absence of anything in the Clean EDGE Act, say enviros, it is mention of stronger auto fuel-economy standards, gasoline taxes, or other controversial yet specific means of reducing oil demand. Instead, the bill puts forward a broad mandate that the president devise a strategy -- any strategy -- for reducing petroleum demand in the U.S. by 6 million barrels a day by 2020.
"It's an ambitious but essentially unenforceable goal if the president decides not to play ball," said Dave Hamilton, the Sierra Club's director of global warming and energy programs. Still, he said, "I don't want to pooh-pooh the challenge of getting the Democrats united around these goals. It's an effort toward consensus-building within a fractious party." He said there are likely equal numbers of Dems to the right and left of the proposal: "Some are saying it's not equal to the task at hand, while others likely think that it's going too fast for them. Which means that if the goal of the act is to unify, it's heading in the right direction."
Cantwell's press secretary, Katharine Lister, told Muckraker the senator was well aware that the proposal could be more ambitious. "Senator Cantwell has long been a supporter of ambitious clean-energy reform, including increasing CAFE [corporate average fuel economy], and if she had her druthers we'd go further with some of these goals," she said. "But she doesn't want to push a bill that's ahead of its time."
According to Lister, Cantwell believes that what Dems need right now is a common-denominator energy platform: "Clean EDGE represents a baseline of what we have consensus to achieve. It's a place to start, and build from. It's our effort to herd the cats in one direction. In the wake of Katrina and other world events, and given the homework and legwork that's being done, the baseline has been raised considerably in just a year."
Indeed, Cantwell's soft touch has convinced a few stray cats to join the herd. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a longtime opponent of progressive energy targets, agreed not only to endorse the proposal, but also to bring the United Auto Workers union on board in support of the bill's mandate that 25 percent of new vehicles have a flexible-fuel capability by 2010, rising to 50 percent by 2020.
Despite these achievements, the bill has no practical chance of success. With only Democratic supporters, it won't get a committee hearing, and even though the whole bill or selected parts could be offered as amendments to another energy-related bill, GOP leaders seem dead-set on preventing any such opportunity.
"It has little chance of moving forward this year," said Aurilio. "Its primary function is to shape the debate."
Reasoned Hamilton, "It's an election year. Democrats want a banner that they can wave in their home states."
Certainly Cantwell, who faces a tough reelection campaign this year, could benefit from such a banner, but her staffers say the bill isn't a play for votes. "Maria has been working on these issues since 2001," said Lister. "This has never been a campaign issue for her."
Hillary Clinton's energy proposal seems, on the face of it, more politically motivated than Cantwell's -- designed to show that she's a national leader on energy and climate issues, at a time when Al Gore has been stealing some of her thunder. Though Clinton is a co-sponsor of Clean EDGE, she came out with her own proposal just one week after the act was introduced. Enviros characterize Clinton's bill as more ambitious, noting that it would create a strategic energy fund for renewable technologies paid for by levying a new tax on Big Oil and rescinding some oil-related tax breaks. Clinton says her legislation could cut imports of foreign oil in half by 2025.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., proposed a bill on the same theme in early May. His bipartisan Enhanced Energy Security Act of 2006, co-sponsored by Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and the ubiquitous Clinton herself, would require the White House to reduce oil use from projected levels by 2.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2016, and by 10 million barrels per day by 2031.
While it might seem that Democrats' various energy bills are competing with each other and detracting from a coherent platform, Aurilio of U.S. PIRG tried to put a more positive spin on it. "To have the debate be about all these different ways we can save oil is a good thing," she said. Added Hamilton of the Sierra Club: "All have a slightly different tune, but together they add up to one basic message: the energy bill of last year didn't solve our problems, and we've got to reduce oil use, one way or another."
Certainly a common message is much needed. But Dems will have to belt out one hell of a loud and tireless tune to be heard above the shrill cries of the GOP ideologues.