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Brown-Waite, rival clash on energy policy

The letter from Wesley Chapel arrived at Ginny Brown-Waite's office on Capitol Hill with a clear message: increase oil drilling now.

To emphasize the point, the constituent included a drill bit.

The Brooksville Republican told the story on the House floor this month as she joined the debate about drilling for domestic oil.

It is just one example illustrating how pocketbook issues such as gasoline prices stand foremost on the minds of some voters in the 5th Congressional District.

Just months ago, the Iraq war, illegal immigration and veterans health care dominated Brown-Waite's mailbox.

These topics are comfortable territory for the three-term incumbent, but the drilling issue sheds light on her mixed record on the topic, one that could prove a weakness in her re-election bid.

In campaign appearances her challenger in the Republican primary on Aug. 26, Jim King of Land O'Lakes, calls her support for drilling "an election year epiphany."

It's Brown-Waite's second such shift in positions this election season. King noted last fall that she supports the Fair Tax initiative after initially resisting.

But the energy issue is where King makes the loudest noise. The 53-year-old long-shot candidate is distributing fliers at area gas stations that detail his energy plan and airing radio advertisements that criticize Brown-Waite's inaction.

"America needs an energy policy now," the ad states. "Simply sitting back and blaming the Democrats is not leadership. Our member of Congress squandered many years in the House when we had the majority."

Brown-Waite, 64, said Friday that she would not "respond to a person of his lack of character."

She argued that her voting record in favor of domestic drilling and alternative sources demonstrates her commitment to energy independence.

"Everything needs to be explored, an all-in kind of policy," she said.

Brown-Waite and King agree on the need for more alternative fuels, especially nuclear power from plants akin to the one in Crystal River.

But the two candidates differ when it comes to coastal drilling.

Brown-Waite is a strong proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and favors converting former military bases into oil refineries. In recent days, her grandiloquence calling the high energy prices "America's new hostage crisis" earned her numerous spots on cable television news shows.

But when it comes to offshore drilling, her voting record is less clear than she suggests.

In 2005, Brown-Waite opposed an energy bill that could have led to drilling off the state's coast.

"Floridians have made it loud and clear they don't want drilling," Brown-Waite said at the time. "I didn't have a warm, fuzzy feeling that Florida would be protected."

In 2006, as oil topped $70 a barrel, she began to waiver.

In May, Brown-Waite joined most of the Florida delegation in voting to protect the state's coasts from drilling.

But a month later, she supported the pro-drilling Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act, but only after a last-minute provision was inserted to keep it more than 200 miles off Florida's west coast.

Brown-Waite said the amendment protected the Military Mission Line, a vital training zone in the gulf used by the Navy and Air Force.

But now, with oil prices reaching record highs and constituents pushing for more drilling, she favors drilling within 50 miles of the shore and appears willing to negotiate on the mission line.

She rejected the notion from King that she flip-flopped. Instead, she argued that her nuanced votes reflect support for drilling when it protects her district's interests.

King claims to be the stronger proponent of drilling, but his energy plan is unlikely to win approval.

He advocates immediately selling permits for oil and natural gas exploration in Alaska, the Dakotas and off the coast of Florida. He also favors permitting a number of refineries on federal lands and lowering the tax rate on corporations that develop energy efficient products.

King says drilling will have a near-term effect and suggests that foreign nations such as China are already drilling in the straits between Cuba and Florida. "It's not a matter of if you are for or against drilling. It's a matter of who you want doing it off our coast," King said.

His two points are disputed. The U.S. Energy Information Administration stated in a recent report that drilling in the Arctic refuge and oceans would not make a difference at the gas pump for nearly two decades. Furthermore, White House officials said this month that China is only exploring for oil off the Cuban coast, not pumping it.

King supports drilling closer to shore than Brown-Waite, offering a 20 mile limit, or just far enough that it won't be seen from the beach.

He also differs with her on the importance of protecting the military mission line, which he contends can be moved. "Quite frankly, I think it's a smoke screen," he said of the military zone. "It gave her cover for some time."

Brown-Waite rejected this notion and called King a "come-lately" to the issue.

"Everything he's saying I've already voted on," she said.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Brown-Waite, rival clash on energy policy 06/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:50pm]

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