A Republican majority swept the House last night, cementing the reality that putting a price on carbon is off the political agenda.
Against a backdrop of recession economics and sharp attacks over the Obama administration's policies on health care, energy and stimulus bills, voters effectively pressed the reset button on climate legislation. Voters ousted a wide swath of cap-and-trade supporters from Virginia to New Mexico, leaving behind a House highly polarized on energy.
Cap-and-trade support alone was neither the death knell for Republican incumbents nor the saving grace for vulnerable Democrats. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Tom Perriello (D-Va.), Harry Teague (D-N.M.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio), all of whom supported the House bill, lost their races. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), coal-state lawmakers who voted against the bill, were spared.
None of the eight Republicans who voted for cap and trade had lost seats as of early Wednesday, though not all of them were running. Delaware Republican Rep. Mike Castle, for example, had already lost in the Republican primary. Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk made a bid for President Obama's old seat in the Senate instead -- and won. Results for Mary Bono Mack of California were still being counted early Wednesday but looked to be in her favor.
Some longtime climate champions, such as Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), survived. Avowed climate skeptics, like James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), also sailed through. There was almost no in-between. Republicans flooded coal country: In Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, for example, they either won or kept 32 of the 48 congressional districts.
"It does not appear if the cap-and-trade votes were determinative in those races," Bledsoe said as early results crept in. "I think there are broader economic forces at work here, and I see nothing that indicates that this was a referendum on a climate and energy bill."
But how the new GOP majority will now approach its climate and energy agenda is less certain.
Playing 'small ball'
Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumed new House Speaker, may have already etched out the blueprints for a GOP energy bill with the "American Energy Act." That legislation, which he introduced last year, calls for ramping up nuclear energy and offshore drilling as well as creating incentives for renewable energy.
But Manik Roy, vice president for federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said he doubts any type of energy bill can move in the next Congress.
"Most energy legislation involves a government subsidy of some sort, and it seems to me a lot of the members coming in with the support of the tea party are coming in on a real strong fiscal conservative platform, and that's not really consistent with giving a lot of money for carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear," he said.
If comprehensive climate bills -- like the one current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pushed through two years ago -- are the way of the past, some think the Republican path forward may be going "small ball."
Jim Collura, a former staffer for New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (R), thinks Boehner will dispense with thousand-page bills in favor of piecemeal moves, like a stand-alone bill for clean energy incentives or a bipartisan renewable electricity standard.
"It makes it more likely that something's going to get done if they play small ball," said Collura, now vice president of government affairs for the New England Fuel Institute, a group of small energy companies that sell home heating equipment and heating oil.
Whatever energy policy is put forth, it will likely be framed in terms of economic opportunity and job growth, said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
"The focus is going to be an economic competitiveness and job creation for whoever has majorities in either chamber," he said. "Both parties have got to develop a robust clean energy investment and job growth set of plans."
Under Boehner, the lower chamber is also expected to launch a targeted assault on the Obama administration's cornerstone issues: climate, economic policies and health care reform.
Committee chairs seeking to press the administration on the science of climate change and challenge U.S. EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases may find a crowded playing field, said Roy.
Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) may launch investigations into events that they claim cast doubt on mainstream climate science. Issa is the presumptive choice to lead the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sensenbrenner is assumed to be next in line to lead the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming -- if the panel continues to exist under Republican leadership, that is.
Sensenbrenner, a climate skeptic, has reportedly indicated that he would like to chair the committee. But some analysts believe the panel will be slashed completely or fundamentally altered. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton (R), a top contender to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, publicly called for scrapping the global warming committee in The Washington Times last month. He also described government regulations on greenhouse gases, coal ash and boilers as "smothering" the economy.
"To date, this new select committee has needlessly spent nearly $8 million in taxpayer money, and that does not account for the countless dollars spent on so-called 'fact finding' missions. By law, this select committee has no legislative role; its sole purpose is to write reports," Upton wrote. "We must terminate this wasteful committee."
The House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Oversight and Investigations subcommittee are also poised to become battlegrounds for some of the administration's central policies on health care, business regulation and energy reform.
Both Upton and the other front-runner to hold the Energy Committee gavel, Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R), have promised that EPA will be in the committee's cross hairs.
Upton has stronger environmental credentials than Barton, according to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV): Upton has a 39 percent environmental lifetime rating to Barton's 6 percent. Yet observers believe that at least at the outset, both would behave similarly as chairman -- in step with Republican caucus interests.
Let the gavel race begin
"It's going to be a tough road ahead for the environment," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director for the LCV. Sittenfeld said she would have been more in favor of Upton's chairing the committee but said his comments about the global warming panel made her skeptical of how the environmental community will work with him.
Pew's Roy, however, maintained that Upton's more liberal record on environmental issues would eventually be borne out.
"I think they would all have to start out conservative, and they would all have to start out attacking EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas and perhaps other pollutants, but the question is once you get past that initial flurry," he said. Roy said both Upton and another contender for the spot, Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns (R), are concerned about and believe in climate change.
"Just the fact that [Upton and Stearns] recognize climate as a problem puts them in a different place than Barton or [Republican Illinois Rep. John] Shimkus," said Roy, referring to another presumptive candidate for the job.
History reflects that netting the chairman spot hinges on a blend of popularity and seniority. And both Barton and Upton are lobbying for the job, dedicating $83,500 and $144,000, respectively, from their political action committees to Republican campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although Barton claims seniority, he also would need a waiver to be allowed to take the gavel, since he has already served as chairman or ranking member for six years. Barton also angered party leadership this past year when he apologized to BP PLC for what he called the Obama administration's "shakedown" of the company after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, triggering a gusher that sent millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Julian Zelizer, history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, said Republicans are worried about appearing to play politics as usual -- but granting Barton a waiver might be "inside baseball" enough that it would not derail his prospects. The prospect of Barton embarrassing the party again, however, could be the thing that gives GOP leadership pause.
"I think it really comes down to him being useful or a hindrance to Republican leadership," Zelizer said.