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Both sides in energy debate watching healthcare battle

Obama's broad plan for new technology, efficiency and a 'cap and trade' system to curb emissions may spark another nasty fight -- so participants are learning from the tactics being used on healthcare.

August 30, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — As the battle over healthcare unfolds, its attack ads, spin-doctoring and town hall rhetoric are being watched with special attention by the combatants in Washington's next big fight -- President Obama's energy and climate plan.

Obama's proposal calls for sweeping government efforts to develop new technologies and strategies for using energy more efficiently. It would also create a complex "cap and trade" system, which would set limits on carbon emissions through a market of tradable permits.

The battle could be just as nasty as the one over healthcare, and many of the groups opposing or supporting the energy proposals are gleaning lessons from the current fight.

Groups on both sides "are not just watching healthcare closely, but calibrating how we go about doing this based on what we see happening out there," said Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank engaged in both the healthcare and climate fights.

Supporters of the climate bill are particularly intent on avoiding what some see as the Obama administration's biggest stumble in the healthcare debate: its failure to convince voters, particularly middle-class workers, that the legislation would tangibly improve their lives.

"The challenge is convincing people that they'll get some real return for reform," Bennett said. "In energy, it's clear to us from focus groups that the only way to do that is to talk about economic growth."

Supporters of Obama's energy plan have begun to worry that Republican strategists will come up with a line of attack similar to the "death panels" charge, in which Democrats were accused -- falsely -- of proposing to create oversight bodies that would deny care to terminal and severely ill patients.

Obama's supporters are particularly concerned that the other side will charge that the cap-and-trade system could be exploited by Wall Streeters to make millions of dollars in profit.

Opponents are already asserting that the legislation would send gasoline and electricity prices soaring and kill U.S. jobs, allegations that the bill's supporters say are largely untrue.

They say that shifting to a more climate-friendly economy will create more jobs.

Critics have also taken up the big-spending, big-government arguments often raised by critics of healthcare legislation.

The greenhouse gas limits at the center of the climate bill are "just another layer of government regulation on our energy sector," said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit group funded in part by energy companies that launched a radio ad campaign against the bill in Midwestern states last week.

Analysts say that the energy debate will probably not play out as a rerun of the healthcare fight. Medical care is among the most personal issues for Americans that Congress deals with; energy is one of the least.

As with the healthcare debate, though, the energy bill is so complicated that it's hard to explain to voters and easy to demonize.

Polls suggest that voters are less passionate about energy than healthcare. But that hasn't stopped both opponents and supporters of the energy bill from mobilizing troops for public displays of fervor.

Noting conservatives' success in packing town hall meetings with outspoken critics of Democrats' healthcare plans, environmentalists and business groups have begun trying to turn out crowds to dominate public forums on energy and climate change.

When Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) spoke this month at the groundbreaking for a new biomass power plant in remote Camden, Ark., the crowd of 400 included 250 clean-energy advocates brought together by the Sierra Club.

"Our side is starting to really turn people out," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the environmentalist group. "The public is on the side of this. They want clean energy."

A few days later, in Houston, oil company workers packed a rally sponsored by conservative groups and major oil and business lobbyists to celebrate the fossil-fuel industry and denounce the climate bill.

A batch of recent polls shows that voters support efforts to boost solar, wind and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels; that more voters believe those efforts will create jobs rather than eliminate them; and that a majority appears willing to pay some amount more for energy as a result.

That's why some GOP strategists are warning that, unlike with the health debate, Republicans can't just criticize Obama's energy plans -- they have to offer their own, including a boost for renewable energy.

"On this issue, Republicans have to say, 'Here's our alternative,' " said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies in Virginia who has done polling on the energy question this summer.

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jtankersley@latimes.com

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