Warming Up a New Politics?

July 2, 2009

WASHINGTON—Hours before the House passed its cap-and-trade bill last week, freshman Democrats Tom Perriello and Frank Kratovil were pondering the political fallout of the votes they were about to cast in favor of a plan Republicans were denouncing as "cap-and-tax."

"Maybe we should be called the conscience caucus," said the thirty-four-year-old Perriello, who won his Southside Virginia district last year by 727 votes even as Barack Obama was losing it by 7,512.

He recalls Kratovil, forty-one, replying that perhaps they would be known as the caucus of soon-to-be unemployed congressmen.

Kratovil, who narrowly won a Maryland district that Obama lost to John McCain by eighteen points, does not remember his precise reply to Perriello. But he acknowledges that "it would have been easier politically not to take that vote."

That some highly vulnerable Democrats in the House were willing to face tens of thousands of dollars worth of Republican attack ads as the price of supporting a bill to curb global warming is the untold story of what, so far, is the year’s most dramatic legislative showdown.

Accounts of the battle typically focus on how many industry giveaways were added to the bill to get it passed, how much it had to be weakened to round up the necessary votes, and how much pressure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama brought to win a 219-to-212 majority.

All of that is true, but it misses another dimension of the fight: a number of relatively young, politically vulnerable House members who had campaigned on promises to cleanse the environment decided that this vote was a risk worth taking. "A bill created by the old politics," says Perriello, "was passed by the new politics."

Well, yes, but as Perriello is the first to acknowledge, old politics operated right to the end.

Take the cases of Kratovil and Colorado’s Betsy Markey, another freshman Democrat from a district Obama lost. Both represent significant numbers of farmers. Their votes weren’t secured until the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) won last-minute changes protecting farm interests.

For Kratovil, one key was making sure that Maryland farmers, who already work under stringent state-imposed environmental standards, would receive the same benefits under the bill as farmers in states with less-demanding rules.

For Markey, major issues included helping rural electric cooperatives and protecting dairy farmers who feared the bill might impose a "cow tax" on cattle for producing methane by way of, shall we say, a thoroughly natural process.

Kratovil said he could not have supported a bill that hurt agriculture, "which is huge as an economic engine vital to my district." With the amendments, he was free to vote in line with his core campaign promises: to promote "renewable fuel, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and to protect the environment," including the Chesapeake Bay.

But another factor is changing the political calculus: the rise of a substantial alternative energy business that encompasses wind and solar. For the first time, the political meaning of the word "energy" is not confined to oil and gas, even if old energy is still far more connected politically.

Among the employers in Markey’s district are Vestas, a leading supplier of wind power, and Abound Solar, a spinoff of research at Colorado State University that manufactures photovoltaic panels.

Markey adds that a large strip of her district is one of the most promising parts of the country for producing wind energy, and "this bill really helps our eastern plains."

Underscoring the dawn of a new energy politics were the eight Republican votes cast in favor of the bill, notably those of Mark Kirk of Illinois and Mike Castle of Delaware. Both are considering campaigns for the U.S. Senate next year, and they may see a future that others in their party don’t.

Still, for many potentially vulnerable Democrats who backed the bill, there will be short-run political pain. Perriello and Markey were among fourteen House members targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee for their votes. In Perriello’s case, a tough television ad predicts huge increases in electricity prices.

Perriello is philosophical about the assault, though he says he’s surprised that Republicans are "using information they know is fundamentally wrong." He plans to use the July 4 weekend in his district to talk about the urgency of energy independence and the potential for renewable energy jobs. Perriello’s fate will be a test of just how new our politics have become.

(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).