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Some Democrats Not Comfortable With Party's Anti-Oil Stance

Attacking Republicans as friends of Big Oil has become the party's drumbeat, making Democrats in energy-producing states uneasy.

Tom Hamburger
Richard Simon
Tribune Washington Bureau
July 6, 2010

Reporting from Washington —
When Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas accused the White House of shaking down oil giant BP for money and then apologized to the company for the government's actions, Democrats greeted his comments like manna from heaven.
It was the perfect opportunity for Democrats to hurl more evidence of the GOP's coziness with corporate polluters. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and environmentalists tossed Barton's comments onto the airwaves and Internet at every chance.

Though such an aggressive stance against oil companies has scored political points, the Democrats' overall position is creating an uncomfortable situation within the party by threatening Democratic lawmakers from areas where the production of oil and gas is a major industry.

"If their goal is to attack Republicans, they'd better be aware that there are also Democrats who are supportive of the industry,'' said Jeff Eshelman of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America.

The Democrats' attacks have been part of a broader strategy of drawing a clear line for voters in the upcoming midterm election. The party has adopted an unrelenting approach of portraying Republicans as BP's partners and Democrats as watchdogs of the industry.

"We want to rein in Big Oil. Republicans say 'no,' " House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said at a news conference Thursday. "We are here for the people's interests. They are here for the special interests. That is the fight we have here every day."

As the attacks have grown from being specifically against BP to the oil industry as a whole, the party line has become difficult to walk for some Democrats.
Democratic Rep. Gene Green of Texas said he was nervous about the direction of his party's attacks. Green represents an area of Houston that includes the nation's largest complex of petrochemical and related companies. "It's everything in my district," he said.

Green has been meeting with Pelosi, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and other party leaders to warn that oil-patch Democrats could be in jeopardy if administration officials and the Democratic Party push a campaign perceived as anti-oil.

He pointed to a stack of letters in his Capitol Hill office from worried constituents — mostly Democrats and union members — urging action to end the Obama administration's moratorium on deep-water drilling in the gulf.

"They see every day what is happening because this industry is idle. And they are very worried. It's all I hear about," Green said.

Other members from energy-producing states report similar concerns.
A meeting of business and labor leaders in Baton Rouge, La., last month inspired a grass-roots campaign to lift the moratorium and remind Americans of the importance of gulf oil to economic and military security.

"It was a punch in the gut to the people of Louisiana" when President Obama called for the six-month drilling moratorium, said Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Assn. of Business and Industry and one of the organizers of the meeting.

Attacking the excesses of big business is nothing new for Democrats. It is an old and delicate game in which legislators balance the needs of their constituents — and their own needs for corporate donations.

The balance has been thrown out of whack by the stakes of the midterm election, in which many Democrats are in jeopardy, and the scope of the gulf oil spill — among the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history.

Republicans, emboldened by polls showing the public unimpressed with the administration's response to the gulf disaster, have sought to portray it as Obama's Hurricane Katrina.

But Democrats have been more aggressive in using the spill to attack Republicans, and they have been able to turn Barton's remarks into a persistent political weapon.
In California, Republican Rep. Ken Calvert was recently labeled an "an oil industry favorite — the Joe Barton of California'' in an e-mail sent by his Democratic opponent.

In Pennsylvania, Republican congressional candidate Michael G. Fitzpatrick was targeted by the League of Conservation Voters, which called on him to return $15,000 that his campaign received from Barton.

And in Minnesota, first-term Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen was accused of taking contributions from oil companies and "sitting silent while Barton apologized to BP."
Such tactics, however, carry significant risks. For oil-state Democrats, the simplistic construction of pro- and anti-oil people belies the reality of their regions and fosters the sense that Republicans frequently tout that Washington has no idea what exists beyond the Beltway.

"What auto and steel is to Ohio River Valley, refineries are to the oil regions," Green said. "You wouldn't tell Silicon Valley you're going to put a moratorium on high-tech."

Lawmakers could pay a price for that miscalculation. Democratic strategists, for example, like to highlight Republicans who take campaign contributions from the oil industry.

But the oil industry is one of the most important in the country and is ingrained in the American political scene. In other words, key Democrats have received their share of money from oil companies too.

Since 1990, the industry has donated $238.7 million to candidates and political parties, about a quarter of it to Democrats.

Indeed, while more than 75% of oil industry donations have gone to Republicans in recent years, the total amount has been so massive that Democrats received significant contributions.

Obama received $884,000 from the oil and gas industry during the 2008 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's more than any other lawmaker except his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.