>Before roiling financial markets sent the president and Congress scrambling toward a gargantuan bailout, Kansas politicians were having a spirited argument about high gasoline prices.


Before roiling financial markets sent the president and Congress scrambling toward a gargantuan bailout, Kansas politicians were having a spirited argument about high gasoline prices.

In congressional races, incumbents and challengers debated an “all of the above” energy policy for weaning the U.S. away from foreign oil. The discussion covered new drilling, nuclear power, alternative energy, bolstering a weak dollar, curbing financial speculation and boosting fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

In the past week or so, it’s been easy to forget that debate because of the turmoil surrounding Wall Street. The question of whether a motorist pays $39 or $47 to fill up the tank of a small car seems insignificant.

But gasoline prices remain an important issue and one to which candidates for office are likely to return. Even if the big financial storm doesn’t pass until after the Nov. 4 election, the newly elected and re-elected federal lawmakers will have to confront what people pay at the pump.

“There’s no other issue, really, that affects people on a day-to-day basis more than gas prices,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. “And even if gas prices go from $3.75 to $3.25, people still feel the pain.”

Gas prices hovered around $4 a gallon during the summer and compelled congressional incumbents and challengers to discuss them. The debate wasn’t confined to the Senate and 2nd Congressional District races, of course, but those contests demonstrate its scope.

In the Senate race, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts is seeking a third term, and his Democratic challenger is former Rep. Jim Slattery. In the 2nd District of eastern Kansas, Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda is trying to win a second term against GOP nominee Lynn Jenkins, the state treasurer.

There is bipartisan consensus that gasoline prices are too high, the U.S. remains too dependent on foreign oil imports and Congress must enact a comprehensive energy policy.

But the details spur significant disagreements.

As an example, Jenkins advocates lifting a federal ban on offshore drilling, including within 50 miles of the coast.

Thus, she derided an energy bill championed by House Democratic leaders — and supported by Boyda — allowing offshore drilling, but starting 50 miles off the coast.

“That is not where the oil is,” Jenkins said. “Drilling is part of the debate. This is ultimately about ending dependence on foreign oil.”

But Boyda defends the legislation as a compromise and says of Republicans who pushed for more offshore drilling, “I’m sorry, but they’re not going to get their way.”

“Our nation has worked on compromise for 232 years,” she said. “The states that don’t want offshore drilling, this is about their tourism and fishing industries. They’re worried sick.”

There’s also the issue of financial speculation, which Boyda, like other Democrats, sees as a key influence on oil prices. She said Congress needs to make financial markets more transparent, so that speculators have less power. Talk of transparency has helped lower gas prices recently, she said.

“You have an energy policy that has been absolutely set by the oil companies for decades,” she added. “They hold most of the cards, and the American people are taking the brunt of that.”

Jenkins contends Boyda has talked about drilling and energy policy but favored only partisan legislation, something that leads to “more money in the pockets of the oil-rich nations.”

Drilling also has been an issue in the Senate race.

Roberts supports opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Many environmentalists strongly oppose the idea, but Roberts contends they’re protecting a “moonscape.”

“It seems like we have to expand our domestic drilling where we can,” he said. “Had we passed ANWR years ago, our problems would be much less serious.”

Slattery said he supports new drilling, but when asked about ANWR, he said opening it up wouldn’t significantly affect the price of gasoline.

Slattery contends shoring up the weak dollar — by attacking the federal budget deficit — would have a much larger effect.

“We have to signal to the global community that we are committed to strengthening the value of the dollar,” he said.

The two Senate candidates also have argued about fuel efficiency standards for automobile. Slattery criticizes Roberts for voting against proposals in past years, only to support legislation this year, deriding the Republican for an election-year conversion.

But Roberts said there are significant differences between what he support this year and past bills. For example, he said, the latest legislation sets different standards for cars and pickups.

Such questions, of course, have been overshadowed in recent days by the news out of Wall Street and Washington and the attempted financial bailout.

But gasoline prices aren’t likely to disappear as an issue, because people confront them every time they fill up.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Political Writer John Hanna has covered state government and politics since 1987.