Among House Democrats in Rust Belt, a sense of abandonment over energy bill

July 27, 2010

When Democratic Rep. John Boccieri went home to Ohio early this year to talk with voters in his Canton-based district, he figured he would have to do battle with at least some constituents over his support for health-care reform. And the economic stimulus. And the auto company bailouts.

But at a meeting with business leaders, he had to come up with fast answers on something completely different: Why, the businessmen wanted to know, had Boccieri voted for a bill last summer to cap carbon emissions, which they feared would drive up their energy bills in the middle of a recession?

Boccieri said he was tired of wars based on “petrol dictators and big oil.”

“If I can take a tough vote today, I’m going to take that vote,” said the freshman lawmaker, an Air Force reservist who flew C-130s over Iraq for more than a year.

But 13 months after that tough vote, Boccieri and dozens of other House Democrats along the Rust Belt are not at all happy with the way things have turned out. The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had assured reluctant members that the Senate would take up the measure. Although Senate passage wasn’t a sure thing, House Democrats hoped to go back home to voters with a great story to tell — about reducing dependence on foreign oil, slowing climate change and creating jobs.

(Campaign 2010: I-70 battleground races)

That didn’t happen. Senate leaders, sensing political danger, repeatedly put off energy legislation, and the White House didn’t lean on them very hard to make it a priority. In the aftermath of the gulf oil spill, the Senate is set to take up a stripped-down bill next week, but the controversial carbon-emissions cap is conspicuously missing.

This has left some House Democrats feeling badly served by their leaders. Although lawmakers are reluctant to say so publicly, their aides and campaign advisers privately complain that the speaker and the president left Democrats exposed on an unpopular issue that has little hope of being signed into law.

Some Democrats liken the situation to that of the 1993 “Btu” tax. The House passed the tax, but the Senate never took it up. Many House Democrats felt hung out on a limb in the 1994 elections, when Republicans reclaimed control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

House leaders stand behind the 2009 vote. Asked whether it was a mistake in light of the Senate’s inaction, Pelosi joked that she would answer a different question. “We staked out a bold position,” she said, “one that was a consensus within our caucus, one that received some Republican votes. We are very proud of it.”

Throughout the winter and spring, as the health-care debate dominated Washington’s attention, lawmakers faced less scrutiny on climate change and some thought the controversy might recede. But Republicans are reviving it as a campaign issue.

“That bill would just crucify Missouri. Voting for it, it just didn’t make sense,” said state Sen. Bill Stouffer, who is one of two well-financed Republican primary candidates hoping to unseat Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton in the fall. The GOP is using the climate change vote to accuse Skelton, now in his 34th year in Congress, of drifting from his moderate Midwestern roots.

“I vote for Ike Skelton. Everybody votes for Ike Skelton,” said Kay Hoflander, chairman of the Lafayette County Republican Party. But when Skelton voted for the climate bill, “he quit representing his district,” Hoflander said. “People now are saying, ‘Ike used to be one of us.’ ”

Skelton, 78, rejects that accusation. He said his initial motivation for supporting the bill was to “control the EPA.” Armed with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that gave the Environmental Protection Agency power to oversee carbon emissions, the Obama administration issued Congress an ultimatum: Unless it acted, the EPA would step in and impose tough new regulations. Better to have Congress do the job, Skelton argued, than a government agency that many farmers and manufacturers in Missouri view with scorn.

Some Democrats are defending themselves on the volatile issue by doubling down and promoting their votes as forward-looking, and others are staking out more business-friendly ground with other energy proposals. To blunt some of the criticism, Skelton joined Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) in sponsoring a bill that would ban the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases — a measure that Boccieri and other Midwestern Democrats support.

Nowhere does the issue cut as sharply as along the I-70 corridor, the nearly 800-mile stretch from Pittsburgh to Kansas City that throughout the 20th century served as the nation’s economic engine. The coal-fired smokestacks and steel mills that once symbolized an honest day’s work throughout the region find themselves under assault as emitters of environmental poison, creating a difficult political dance for the region’s lawmakers.

This I-70 region is home to at least 20 contested House races and five open Senate seats, including in Ohio, where this month GOP Senate candidate Rob Portman launched a TV campaign calling climate legislation “a job killer for Ohio.” Republicans are trying to add the bill to a mix of tough votes that could flip enough races in this region to put the House back in GOP control and seriously dent the Democratic edge in the Senate.

Of the 15 House Democrats in this corridor who are in contested races, 10 voted for the climate legislation, giving Pelosi the decisive margin in the 219 to 212 victory in June 2009. Many Midwestern Democrats preferred not taking up the issue, at least until after health care was finished. Once Pelosi moved what she calls her “hallmark” issue ahead of health care last year, Obama led a final push to get the necessary votes.

Pelosi won over wavering Democrats such as Boccieri and Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Baron P. Hill (Ind.) and Zack Space ((Ohio) — each of whom faces a difficult reelection — after intense negotiations designed to soften the blow of the initial proposal. The House bill would place new production costs on power plants, factories and oil refineries, requiring U.S. emissions to decline 17 percent by 2020. Creating a commodities market, the bill would require polluters to buy “credits” to cover their emissions; Midwestern farmers, among others, could sell “offsets” for pollutants they didn’t emit.

But lofty talk about the securing the future of the planet is not likely to win over many voters who have lost their jobs.

In Boccieri’s northeastern Ohio district, the manufacturing decline has been sharp and painful. Ten years ago, there were 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the Canton-Massillon region. By spring, the number had been cut nearly in half, to 24,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Boccieri said he knows his constituents are focused on the present. “All the average voter wants to know is, ‘When my refrigerator is on, are my rates going to be lower or higher?’ ”

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