May 17, 2001
Both Parties Set Their Stages as Curtains Rise on Energy Plans
By RICHARD L. BERKE and JOSEPH KAHN
ASHINGTON, May 16 — It is no accident that President Bush will unveil his sweeping energy proposal on Thursday at a futuristic power plant in St. Paul, which produces electricity from turkey manure and alfalfa but is hardly a centerpiece of his 170-page strategy.
And it is no accident that the Democrats are setting up a war room in the basement of the Capitol with plans to blitz radio and television markets not so much with their own energy prescriptions but with a message blasting the Bush administration as stocked with oil tycoons who want to allow energy companies to violate wilderness areas and charge sky-high prices.
The competing stagecraft is part of an increasingly acerbic political battle over how to address the nation's demand for energy, which is emerging as the leading concern of many Americans, polls show.
Mr. Bush's announcement of his energy plan, and the Democrats' response, will also open ambitious public relations drives to sell competing proposals to a public unsettled by surging gasoline prices and the prospect of rolling blackouts.
While Mr. Bush stages campaign- style events this week to promote his proposal as proconservation and proconsumer, Democratic officials said that as early as next week they might broadcast television advertisements portraying the White House as beholden to oil companies
Republicans and Democrats are eager to make the issue their own in the runup to the 2002 elections that could easily tip control of a tightly divided Congress. They said they were framing their pitches not to particular lawmakers on Capitol Hill but to try to affect public opinion well beyond Washington.
Strategists in both parties said the results of extensive polling helped guide their political strategies. The main thrust of Mr. Bush's report is that traditional fossil fuels will remain the overwhelming energy source for the country for decades, deserving far more support than they received from the Clinton administration.
But the president and his energy advisers have gone to great lengths to stress that their report will also have a big dose of conservation and promotes clean energy production in order to protect the environment.
White House officials said the president would emphasize the use of agricultural, animal and human waste to produce energy, known as biomass energy, at the event on Thursday because the White House was eager to erase the impression that he was too focused on oil and coal and not enough on conservation.
In fact, people at the Energy Department who were involved in drafting the report said they scrambled to strengthen sections on conservation and alternative energy after Vice President Dick Cheney's description of the report's goals — and his skepticism about conservation — prompted blasts from Democrats and environmentalists.
In interviews today, the Republican and Democratic national chairmen cast energy as the most crucial issue facing their parties — and the nation. Offering a preview of how he will seek political advantage, Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, the Republican chairman, said Mr. Bush had inherited an energy crisis from President Bill Clinton.
"It's obviously a matter of great concern right now in the United States," Mr. Gilmore said. "If the Democrats try to exploit this it's just going to backfire on them immediately because they are the party that didn't do anything about this. We see this as an opportunity for the president. Politically, we should get some benefit."
Mr. Bush sought to shield himself from blame for the nation's energy woes. "We haven't had an energy policy," he said at a cabinet meeting today. "Interestingly enough, this is the first comprehensive energy policy probably ever."
But Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Gilmore's Democratic counterpart, pointed to Mr. Bush — and an administration that he said was top-heavy with officials from the energy industry, which contributed heavily to Republicans in the 2000 election.
"This is a huge winning issue for the Democrats," Mr. McAuliffe said. "People are concerned that this is a government for and by the special interests. The gigantic tax cut was nothing but a pass-through to the oil companies."
The two sides have one theme in common: Both are stressing that technology can help the nation meet its energy needs by making appliances, automobiles, homes and factories use less power.
Yet the White House and Democratic Congressional leaders diverge on the central question of whether the government has a role in reducing high energy prices.
Democrats plan an aggressive push to try and put a cap on the prices that Californians pay for electricity and want thorough federal investigations of oil companies and refineries to determine whether gas prices have been unfairly inflated.
Democrats also say the administration should dip into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve when oil and gas prices get too high as a way to dampen prices.
By contrast, Mr. Bush rejects short-term fixes as harmful, especially if they involve anything that smacks of price controls. Mr. Cheney argues that there was no evidence of price gouging in the gasoline market, and he has ruled out federal price caps for electricity in California.
Several academics and strategists said the Democrats could gain more politically on energy than the Republicans — or at least not suffer as much damage — because the high prices are occurring on Mr. Bush's watch — and the White House is on the defensive over the administration's ties to the industry.
"Republicans are probably in a tougher position than the Democrats," said Morris P. Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University. "Even if they're right, that the best thing to do is to leave it to the market and the prices rise, it still looks as if you're exploiting the consumer, exploiting the public and exploiting workers."
Sensing the administration's vulnerability on price issues, Congressional Republicans are pushing to repeal the federal gas tax — 18.4 cents a gallon — as a way to demonstrate sensitivity to rising gas prices.
The administration is also coming under bipartisan pressure to address California's problems with more than long-term solutions. Representatives Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, and Rick Boucher, Democrat of Virginia, have teamed up on legislation in the House that they say would stop price manipulation in the transportation of natural gas by energy companies.
Both Democratic and Republican camps have seized on energy efficiency and technology, in part because they believe it will have particular appeal to swing voters. The idea that technology can help address the energy problem without requiring sacrifice has deep appeal, though Democrats say Republicans are late converts who short-change such ideas when it comes to the budget.
Ridiculing Mr. Bush's interest in anything besides more drilling, Gov. Gray Davis of California, a Democrat, said: "This is obviously a death-bed conversion to conservation. The White House approach favors more energy production at the expense of everything else."
Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington, and other members of his party say they would spend far more than Mr. Bush in supporting research and development into wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and other new energy sources. They would also be tougher on fuel-efficiency standards for autos, light trucks and air conditioners.
Anticipating such critiques, the White House is presenting its energy strategy as an environmental, conservation and technology blueprint in which support for fossil fuels is a relatively minor component.
Mary Matalin, Mr. Cheney's counselor, emphasized that the plan's focus on technology would make it possible for appliances, like television and computers, to do the same work using far less energy.
Though Mr. Bush began his term promoting oil drilling in an Alaskan wilderness area, his leading theme now seems to be using human, animal and agricultural waste to produce fuel, electricity and petroleum substitutes. The program would require hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies, but it has strong support from the farm lobby and environmentalists.
The White House has been working closely with industry to develop its plan, just as Democrats have communicated with environmentalists about the proper response.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups who oppose Mr. Bush's plan have purchased newspapers advertisements that question his sincerity about a balanced approach. One advertisement objects to Mr. Bush's visit to St. Paul, saying a trip to the nearby High Bridge coal- fired power plant, with its "asthma- triggering soot" would "have been a lot more honest."
But some environmentalists have softened their tone. Many of the Bush team's recommendations had once been pushed by the Clinton administration, though they frequently went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Dan Reicher, who headed the Department of Energy's energy efficiency office in the Clinton administration.