WASHINGTON – President Bush is about to unveil his long-awaited energy blueprint in the shadows of soaring gasoline prices and Western power blackouts. But by all accounts it will include little to address either problem.
Administration officials, seeking to dampen expectations, have argued there is little the federal government can do to avoid California's blackouts, the state's expected $70 billion electricity bill this year, or a second consecutive summer of gasoline prices above $2 per gallon.
Instead, officials from the president and vice president on down have talked of long-haul solutions and the actions needed to bring energy supplies in line with growing demand.
All of the solutions — from building more refineries and hundreds of new power plants to easing power line bottlenecks — take years to bring any payoff. There ``is no magic wand'' to reduce gas prices, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said this week.
And that has some Republican political advisers and members of Congress facing re-election next year worried about a voter backlash — especially if the Western electricity crisis spreads further.
After all, it was the energy crunch of the late 1970s that brought gas lines and hastened Jimmy Carter's exit from the White House after one term.
``For Republicans to maintain their control of Congress, they need to have something in the short term,'' says GOP consultant Scott Reed. ``We don't want to be the ostrich party and stick our head in the sand.''
Democrats are eager to portray that image of their GOP rivals.
``What we hear from the administration is that no help is forthcoming, not this summer, not this year and not any time soon,'' Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, declared Tuesday of the Bush energy plan.
The president last week sought to ease the criticism by ordering federal agencies to cut their energy use this summer, especially in California. He dispatched Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to the state to tout the effort to the media.
But the response from California officials was less than enthusiastic. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis noted that federal agencies had been asked to cut energy use by 10 percent, half of what the state already has directed its employees to do.
``It falls short of what we've been able to achieve,'' said Davis spokesman Steven Maviglio. As for other federal initiatives ``I can't recall any of them being earth shattering.''
Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated Tuesday that the long haul — not the short term — is what is driving his energy task force in crafting the plan to be announced next week.
``You have to ask how we got in this state,'' he told CNN when asked what can be done to address this summer's energy problems. ``The solution for us is to try to deal with these issues on the long-term basis, so we get more supply. That's the key to having the adequate prices as well.''
There was no hint from Cheney, a former oil company executive, of federal intervention in the Western energy markets to contain out-of-control prices and no talk of tougher pursuit of refunds from price gougers. There also was no discussion of an investigation of astronomical oil industry profits or the sudden run-up of gasoline prices at a time when gasoline stocks have been increasing and summer is still a month away.
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and a handful of House Republicans — all strong defenders of a free market philosophy — have been urging the administration to support temporary controls on wholesale electricity prices on the West Coast, where power has been selling for 10 times its 1999 price.
``I believe in the free market,'' Smith says, but in the West ``the electricity market is broken.'' He has argued — as have many Democrats — that price caps can be fashioned in such a way not to dampen power plant investment or supplies.
``Otherwise we are looking at a catastrophe,'' says Smith, who faces re-election next year in a state where utilities are predicting a doubling or more of electricity prices by fall. Aluminum and other industrial plants in the state are also laying off workers because of high energy costs.
But in a meeting with GOP lawmakers, including Smith, on the energy plan, Cheney reiterated the administration's distaste for price controls, according to several people present.
``If politicians keep moving from one quick fix to the other the nation will never get out of its energy crisis,'' Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said this week.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, another champion of the free-market economy, would normally agree.
But this week the California Republican joined the call for price controls. He, too, faces an increasingly angry California electorate next year.