UPDATED: 28 FEB 2023 03:02 PM EST
Republican operatives are launching a multimillion-dollar campaign to pressure swing-state lawmakers to make it easier to build energy projects such as pipelines and power lines — with a special focus on squeezing vulnerable Senate Democrats.
Leaders of the new effort include allies of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, two potential GOP contenders in next year's presidential race, as well as a former top aide to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The push could speed federal approvals for energy initiatives that members of both parties champion — including renewable energy projects such as solar farms that are vital for President Joe Biden's climate agenda. But it could alienate some parts of Biden's environmentalist base by clearing the way for mines, pipelines and other fossil-fuel projects that green activists oppose.
The effort underscores the importance that Republicans and their corporate allies have placed on using their narrow House majority to fast-track energy projects — even as leading members of the party wage vocal fights on issues such as Chinese surveillance and investigations into Biden’s family. But to pass the Senate, they will need support from Democrats, including those facing tough reelection fights in 2024.
The group is pitching its plan as a bipartisan play to both lower energy prices and quickly build clean power projects to meet Biden's climate goals.
“I'm not naive to think it's going to break through where some of the cultural issues are inside Republican debates right now, but I do think it's an important one for our economy and for the conversation to be had,” Marc Short, the former chief of staff to Pence, told POLITICO. “The permitting reform will highlight what we think are the failures of this administration and the Democratic Congress on energy policy.”
Phil Cox, a top consultant to DeSantis' 2022 gubernatorial campaign who continues to advise him ahead of a potential White House run, is also spearheading the new effort, dubbed “Building a Better America.” Cox is also a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
The new group's leader is Bill Koetzle, a former Chevron and American Petroleum Institute lobbyist who also worked for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Neither DeSantis nor Pence is personally involved in the effort.
So far, the group has raised $2 million, and Short said it has a targeted budget of $10 million, but will ask its corporate and industry backers for more if needed. It plans to use that money for paid media, events and grassroots efforts in local districts to help pressure Congress to pass legislation.
As a 501(c)(4) operation — a tax-exempt organization for promoting social welfare — the new group can raise unlimited funds and is not required to disclose its donors. Short and Koetzle declined to name the source of its funding.
Also involved in the effort is Jonathan Kott, a former communications director and senior adviser to Manchin — the lead Democratic voice in favor of changing permitting laws. Kott is a partner at the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel.
Tim Chapman, a senior adviser to the Pence-founded advocacy group Advancing American Freedom and a principal at Cox's public affairs firm P2 Public Affairs, will also play a key role. Katie Miller, Pence's former communications director, will run the press operation.
"This truly bipartisan effort will help America once again lead the next century in reliable, affordable and clean energy," Kott said in a statement. "We need an all-of-the-above approach to meet our climate goals and power our economy."
House Republicans have indicated they plan to pass legislation next month to reshape permitting procedures. Manchin has said he wants to continue working on the issue in the Senate after his bid to pass a bill faltered last winter.
It's unclear, though, how much Democratic involvement House Republicans want in their legislative push. That could have ramifications for how the Senate engages with any House-passed measure.
“You're going to see how leadership allows that process to play out through the committee,” Short said. “I think the industry is behind us encouraging a wide swath of these reforms that all feel like they incrementally move the process forward.”
Short and Koetzle said their campaign is similar to an effort that backed the creation of the revised United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement during former President Donald Trump's administration. As a 501(c)(4), they said, it is not overtly partisan.
Yet some of the lawmakers the group intends to target with its messaging carry clear 2024 implications: Among them are Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a candidate to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow; and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona independent who caucuses with Democrats, all of whom are up for reelection next year.
“It is hopefully applying the right pressure that makes sure they vote the right ways that accomplish permitting reform — but if they don't, then there's also a cost to them with their voters,” Short said. “That’s not necessarily electing a Republican, but it is acknowledging that there is a cost for them, particularly because they're in a swing district.”
Lawmakers in other tight districts are part of the group’s plan, too, such as Democratic Reps. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Frank Mrvan of Indiana, Greg Landsman of Ohio, Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas.
Swing states pivotal to the 2024 presidential contest such as Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Pennsylvania will attract much of the campaign’s attention. The initial list of targets includes Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Susan Wild (D-Pa.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Susie Lee (D-Nev.), as well as Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
The small number of Republicans on the list includes Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, along with Reps. Marc Molinaro and Andrew Garbarino of New York, Tom Kean of New Jersey and Don Bacon of Nebraska.
Lawmakers of both parties have acknowledged it takes too long to build major infrastructure and energy projects.
Some Democrats worry that these delays risk squandering $550 billion in new spending that Congress provided in the bipartisan infrastructure law and the $369 billion in clean energy and manufacturing incentives from the Democrat-passed Inflation Reduction Act, H.R. 5376 (117).
A handful of Senate Democrats voiced support for Manchin’s permitting focus during the last Congress out of concern that existing permitting rules would keep billions of dollars of projects on the sidelines and prevent the United States from achieving Biden’s goal of slashing the nation's greenhouse gas pollution by the end of this decade. But progressive Democrats have rejected both Manchin's plan and Republican proposals, which they say would weaken communities’ ability to weigh in on new developments and would greenlight new fossil fuel projects.
Republicans, meanwhile, want to quicken the pace for building roads, energy pipelines and mines for rare earth minerals used in batteries and facilities for producing cleaner fuels like hydrogen. They see the effort as a buttress for national energy security and a way to limit the influence of China and Russia over global supply chains.
“This is not just an oil sector plan,” Koetzle said. “This is a program for anybody who's interested in building something in this country.”