Republicans, whose "Drill, baby, drill" message is being smothered by an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, are trying out an old standby -- gasoline prices.
Some GOP lawmakers and leaders are seeking to regain their footing with a counterattack on the anti-drilling chorus that is growing louder each day as the slick from a deepwater BP PLC well grows and bears down on the Gulf Coast.
The House Republican Conference, led by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, has assembled an "Energy Rapid Response Team" with seven House members at the ready to deliver the message that putting the brakes on coastal drilling will only boost oil imports and prices at the pump.
"As the price of gas continues to climb, the following House Republicans are available to comment that now is not the time to increase our dependence on foreign oil by retreating from offshore exploration," the conference informed media outlets in an advisory today.
Pence is an ambitious House leader who is slowly building a national presence and is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2012. And he has been out front in defending drilling from its increasingly confident critics, seemingly sure that Americans support more domestic production.
"The American people deserve answers for a pathway toward energy independence," Pence said in a recent floor speech. "There would be those in this country who would exploit this ongoing disaster to deny the American people more access to American oil, but the American people know better."
His enthusiasm for going on the offensive for more production amid a drilling-induced environmental disaster is far from universal among Republican leaders. Some Republican leaders say they are sticking to the message that the government needs to work aggressively to contain the disaster right now, not press on what the country is doing about energy development. And others have stayed silent on the environmental aspects of the spill, preferring to focus on national security, attack Democrats' plans for a financial regulatory overhaul, or question why Obama's stimulus has not created more jobs.
Two moderate Republican governors, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida's Charlie Crist (who recently bolted the party for his independent Senate bid), have abruptly shifted away from offshore drilling in the wake of the spill.
And their reversals demonstrate the dangers of Pence's gambit. While the party has moved rapidly to the right with the tea party movement, most Gulf Coast states are Republican-leaning, and the man-made disaster threatens the region's economy and the livelihoods of thousands of residents. Notably, none of the seven Republicans on the energy response team are from coastal districts.
Democrats say the message smacks of desperation.
"This is Republicans pushing back on an issue where they are in retreat," said a Democratic leadership aide. "You have moderate Republican governors in two states recanting their positions on drilling. Meanwhile, steam is building to roll back the cap on economic damages in the Congress and admin supports. That would be a major blow to industry."
But the tactic has worked before.
Republicans scored one of their biggest victories as a minority party in 2008 when they forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to relent and let a cherished moratorium on drilling off the nation's coasts expire. Amid $4-a-gallon gas, Republicans staged a sit-in on the House floor when Congress recessed for August. With fears growing that the Republican campaign could endanger then-candidate Barack Obama's presidential campaign, House leaders allowed an appropriations bill to pass without the rider that had closed the coasts for nearly four decades.
But this year, gasoline prices are hovering around $3 a gallon heading into the summer driving season, evoking winces, but not full-throated screaming, from motorists. And consumers have not been primed for outrage by a winter of high natural gas and home heating oil prices.
Some Republican leaders are poking around the edges on the spill issue, looking for soft spots in the Democrats' environmental armor.
In memos to reporters and others, they have highlighted discrepancies in what Obama administration officials have said about the spill, noting that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' take on offshore drilling has shifted from a no-need-to-change statement the day after the Deepwater Horizon rig sank to a 6,300-word chronology today detailing the administration's response to the "massive and potentially unprecedented environmental disaster."
They are also cautiously highlighting media reports that Obama's Interior Department granted an exemption from environmental reviews to BP's drilling project. That line could also be fraught, because making way for such "categorical exclusions" was a staple of Republican energy policy throughout the George W. Bush administration when Republicans controlled Congress.
Click here to watch Pence's floor remarks.