POLITICS:

With health care in spotlight, climate push continues backstage

With health care dominating political talk nationwide, environmental groups and their allies are planning to put climate change in front of key lawmakers during the August recess in hopes of building momentum for a Senate vote this autumn.

Several environmental groups say they will make direct contacts with lawmakers and use voter outreach rather than large media campaigns to push their message on global warming.

"We may at some point be doing some paid advertising, but a period like the recess is opportunity for members of Congress to be back and hear some real-world arguments," said David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, which includes environmental groups and labor unions.

The Blue Green Alliance and other advocates are encouraging supporters to attend town halls, participate in voter-education efforts, make phone calls to voters, meet with senators and write letters to the editor.

The push comes after several weeks in which health care has dominated Capitol Hill debates. Liberal groups say there is a chance this month to get climate change back in the picture by focusing on the economic benefits of action on global warming, their cornerstone during the House climate debate.

"We view all of these issues as part of the economic recovery," said Lauren Weiner of Americans United for Change. "We think that message will come through in certain areas because we do feel that all these issues are intertwined."

Americans United, which advocates for a wide range of Democratic initiatives and launched media campaigns during House consideration of its climate bill, has no immediate plans to run any media advertising during the August recess. But Weiner said the group will be involved in a number of voter outreach efforts and will put out advertising if events warrant.

"We turn things around pretty quickly, and should the need come up, we'll do paid media," Weiner said.

Leaders of other groups also said they intend to focus on a similar economic message, believing the economy remains a priority for most voters and that energy is central to economic revival.

"Members [of Congress] understand this is one of the big challenges of the 21st century and one of the big issues that needs to be resolved," said Forster of the Blue Green Alliance. "There tends to be a kind of shifting of Washington media focus because health care is the issue on the agenda of the House and Senate, but the big, burgeoning issue in this country is the issue of unemployment."

David Willett of the Sierra Club also said that as long as groups can get energy issues in front of voters and lawmakers, they will be willing to listen. "We haven't had any senators telling us, 'We're too busy working on health care to care about your issues,'" he said.

Willett said the Sierra Club may do some media ads later but plans now to focus on being active at local events and reaching out to both the public and politicians.

Scrutiny of 'grass roots' campaigns

Such outreach strategies, commonly described as "grass roots" efforts, have come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, in the wake of town hall meetings that have become hostile and a scandal involving forged letters sent to members of Congress.

Washington-based lobbying firm Bonner & Associates sent a dozen letters to three separate House Democrats urging them to vote against the climate bill, making the letters look as if they came from community organizations based in their districts. The firm has blamed the forged letters on a single employee who it says has since been fired.

This week, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, one of the top Washington-based coal industry advocacy groups, revealed that Bonner & Associates was working on its behalf, generating a wave of outrage from environmentalist and liberal commentators.

Environmentalists acknowledge that they see some opportunity in the letters scandal and the general controversy surrounding the tactics used by various groups to reach lawmakers. Already, environmentalists have pounced on the disclosure of the letters to argue that it is part of a prolonged campaign by opponents of the legislation that uses inaccurate information to try to turn politicians and the public against it (E&E Daily, Aug. 4).

"From what I can tell, there is a lot more discussion than we would otherwise be having about this bill, particularly because health care is such a big story," Willett said.

Potentially helping environmentalists is attention being given to so-called town hall meetings between constituents and lawmakers.

Most of the time, such events get little media attention, but several heated confrontations between lawmakers and supporters, as well as a very open effort by some conservative groups to be heard at such meetings, have heightened press attention to and scrutiny of those events.

Willett described the combination of the letter issue and the town halls controversy as an "alignment" that clearly demonstrates to voters the organized interests that stand in the way of key legislative priorities. "They're both about monied interests presenting some kind of false impression about a grass-roots position that doesn't really exist," he said.

Action on the right

Indeed, while the Sierra Club and others view the town halls and other August events as opportunities to push for action on the climate legislation, groups on the right are gearing up for similar action linking the two big legislative priorities of health care and climate.

Officials from ACCCE and other critics of climate legislation argue that the forged letters represent an isolated incident and that grass-roots politics is a long-standing practice that has been equally used by groups on both sides of the debate. Indeed, ACCCE is launching its own grass-roots effort this month, using more than 200,000 volunteers to likewise attend town halls and other events visited by members of Congress (Greenwire, Aug. 6).

And the group FreedomWorks -- chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) -- earlier this week released an "August Recess Action Kit" that provides individuals with information about town hall locations and talking points about on the two major issues for the day.

"The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stated recently that 'I am not afraid of August. It's just a month,'" Armey wrote. "It may be true that August is just a month, but it's also true that the longer we have to expose the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table, the more afraid Ms. Pelosi, Senator Reid, and President Obama should be."

The memo describes the cap-and-trade plan as one that will create "a new energy tax, threaten millions of American jobs and could drive gas prices up in excess of $4 per gallon."

Still, even as town halls have created extra publicity, they also raise the question of whether all grass-roots efforts will be potentially tainted.

"Using fake grass roots damages everybody," Willett said. "I think it makes it difficult for everybody to do their jobs."

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