Thursday, March 1, 2012 | 7:28 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Long before the gavel came down Thursday on the Senate’s vote shunning a rollback of Obama’s health care bill in the name of religious freedom, Nevada’s two Senate contenders had moved on to their next war of political perspective.
The newest point of contention? Energy -- or seen from the other side, gas prices.
Republican Sen. Dean Heller went on the offensive this week against his main challenger, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, citing her past votes in favor of a cap-and-trade bill to make the charge that Berkley was dead set on raising the price of gas through a “national energy tax.”
“The question is: Will Shelley Berkley vote to tax Nevada families again?” said Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith in a statement.
It’s all part of a coordinated Republican campaign to take aim at Democrats, starting with President Barack Obama, for what they’re calling a crisis of gas prices under his watch.
But Berkley’s campaign has been firing back at Heller with a few questions of their own on the same topic.
“According to Dean Heller’s own website, his influential Senate committee assignments give him the power to ‘address climbing gas prices’... If Dean Heller has the power to address high gas prices, why isn’t he?” the Berkley campaign charged, concluding that “he’s more concerned with padding the pockets of Big Oil.”
Gas prices in Las Vegas have been on the rise, going from a low of $1.70 per gallon in late 2008 (after a midyear spike of over $4 per gallon) to an average price of about $3.75 today.
Economically speaking, rising gas prices are both a problem for and a symptom of a global energy market in transition.
Politically, however, they represent an opportunity for both parties to score some electoral points.
“Some politicians are seeing higher gas prices as a political opportunity...only in politics do people respond to bad news with such enthusiasm,” Obama said today during a speech in New Hampshire, referencing recent “phony election-year promises” from Republicans to bring back $2-a-gallon gas. “You know what the essence of their plan is going to be, which is: Step one, drill. Step two, drill. Step three, keep drilling... You know that we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.
“The amount of oil that we drill at home doesn’t set the price of gas on its own...the biggest thing that’s causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East,” Obama continued. “If we’re going to avoid high gas prices...then we’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy that develops every single source of American energy. Not just oil and gas, but also wind and solar and biofuels.”
The “all-of-the-above” terminology has been a favorite of Republicans too. But as a party, Republicans are taking a very different tone from the president, charging that it’s been the Democrats’ intent all along to help prices to rise in order to provide cover for their campaign to expand the nation’s focus on non-carbon sources of energy.
“Make no mistake: the rising price of gasoline isn’t simply the result of forces we can’t control. It is, to a large extent, the result of a vision that this president laid out even before he was elected to office,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.
Higher gas prices have helped Obama administration officials make a case for why the country needs to turn to cleaner and more renewable sources of energy. And as Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made clear in testimony this week, lowering gas prices isn’t the administration’s prime objective: “decreas(ing) our dependency on oil to build and strengthen our economy” is.
Earlier this week, Berkley introduced a bill in that vein: A “clean energy jobs” package that she says will help create employment opportunities in renewable energy industries, paid for by ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies.
The substance of Berkley’s bill is not original: It is simply an extension of the Energy Department’s now-defunct section 48c tax credit program, which provided a 30 percent tax credit to manufacturers of renewable energy. The program hasn’t been active since the end of 2010 -- it didn’t make it into the comprehensive tax bill that extended certain programs, including the better-known Section 1603 tax credit-to-cash grant program for renewable energy entrepreneurs, through the end of last year.
Neither does the bill stand much of a chance of going anywhere in a Republican controlled House of Representatives. But it gives her campaign another opportunity to attack Heller for voting last year against ending tax breaks for oil and gas companies -- the unofficial but ubiquitous bogeymen of the Berkley campaign.
Heller, meanwhile, is hoping to seize the high ground on gas prices and renewable energy by accusing Berkley of defending regulations that he argues either directly or indirectly hindered the progress of energy production in Nevada.
The end result of the cross-talk is a contorted blame-game in which clarity depends on whose either-or scenario you subscribe to: Heller, who says Berkley’s regulation-friendly record leads to a harder road for renewables and higher gas prices; or Berkley, who says Heller’s unwillingness to go after the big oil and gas giants means billions that could help shore up Nevada’s homegrown renewable industries and bring down prices are being blown on corporate profits.
No rush to decide. They’ll doubtless be bickering about this one for weeks to come.