Mark Begich’s victory over Republican Ted Stevens has brought the Democrats closer to the magic number of 60 Senate seats, but his win also points out that there are some major policy differences in the Democratic caucus. In Begich’s case, the disagreement involves energy and ANWR, but those looking looking for liberal legislation might be disappointed by Obama and this Congress.
Begich was interviewed late last night for NPR’s Morning Edition. This is what he had to say about the speculation that Obama is interested in imposing a total ban on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), “Well, I would totally disagree. And I think you know that for him to make that statement this early would be a mistake. I think that we should first take a look at what’s the energy policy of this country. How are we going to become more independent, as a country, from foreign oil?”
The new Alaska senator said that he favors drilling in ANWR, “I’ve said that through the campaign that I think that’s a reasonable approach based on the new technologies, the amount of footprint we would take up would be minimal. But I would put that into a long-term national energy policy. It would not be a project by itself. We have to look at the long-term energy requirements of our country and how we figure out how to get off foreign oil.”
He continued talking about reducing the demand for foreign oil, “That is the ultimate goal. Because we are dependent so much on foreign oil that we are really strapped in what we can do as a country. And we have to figure out new energy sources, as well as how do we reduce demand as a country, because that’s a huge impact. That’s why the oil prices have come from 140 down to 55 bucks a barrel is because we have reduced demand by almost five percent. That’s what we need to be focused on and that in the long term for our country will be a great benefit.”
It would almost be criminal for Begich to take any other position, because his state’s economy is dependent on oil and natural gas revenue, but his disagreement with Obama points out the challenge Democrats will be facing when it comes to passing legislation. In Alaska the disagreement in on energy, but in the South, Democrats tend to me much more conservative on social policy, and domestic spending. Republicans are hoping that Democrats reach too far to the left with their policy goals, but I think a more likely outcome is that left will be disappointed.
The composition of the Democratic majority in Congress almost requires moderation. The key votes on things like tax cuts and healthcare will come from moderates. Because of the simple majority rule in the House, Pelosi should be able to get through anything she wants, but I expect that the Senate will be consistently watering down House legislation. Then there is Obama, who comes from the Senate, and is himself a moderate Democrat.
Unlike the previous 15 years, there will be a lot of legislation passed by this Congress, but just may not be as liberal as many people are wishing for. I don’t for see Obama or the Senate moving to the far left. As the example of Mark Begich and the issue of energy demonstrate, I don’t think they have the votes to move too far to the left. If they try to go far left, the Democratic caucus could fracture, and we could see a return to inter party fighting that plagued the Democratic Congress at the beginning of President Clinton’s first term. If Congress of the last two years is any indication, look for Democrats to stick to the middle.