One of the worst-kept secrets in Washington is how often lawmakers repudiate proposals they once supported -- a move that risks being amplified, however unfairly, into charges of flip-flopping. But at times such a shift can draw new scrutiny from interest groups looking to coax a member of Congress back toward a once-favored idea.
For a small group of House Republicans, one of those pressure-prompting votes may have come in the summer of 2007, when a national renewable electricity standard won 32 GOP votes before passing the chamber as part of a broader bill, with 26 GOP supporters.
The new House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan was among the Republicans backing the larger energy measure, with its 15 percent renewables mandate, while current House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) voted for the mandate before opposing the bill that carried it. With President Obama now throwing his weight behind an electricity standard that would add nuclear power, natural gas and "clean coal" to the mix for utilities, Upton and Ryan could be publicly reminded of their past openness to such a national mandate.
Republicans who embraced the renewables standard during its House consideration in 2007 "will be put on the spot to support a clean energy standard in 2011," Center for American Progress Action Fund climate strategy director Daniel Weiss said in an interview.
"However, the key question is whether or not such a proposal will even be passed through the House energy committee," Weiss continued. "So far, the initial signs from Chairman Upton suggest that he is uninterested in that approach."
Upton's camp highlighted that take on the CES, which would count nuclear and natural gas alongside wind and solar, by circulating a Wall Street Journal column 10 days ago that quoted the chairman questioning the need for a "federal mandate" when 28 states already set their own renewables standards.
But while Upton voted against the amendment that added a 15 percent renewable standard to the 2007 House energy bill -- language that never became law in the wake of Senate resistance -- his vote for the broader bill suggests a vulnerability to cajoling that environmentalists are already moving to exploit. The League of Conservation Voters launched a website Friday dedicated to depicting Upton's turn toward a more conservative energy policy as a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" dynamic (Greenwire, Feb. 4).
Upton's public openness to a mandate for lower-carbon power dates to as recently as 2009, when he told Democrats that he "would in fact support creating a national electricity standard" provided that it includes "any form of zero-emission power." That description matches up with the CES that Obama pitched during last month's State of the Union address.
Upton's office did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.
Looking beyond the powerful Energy and Commerce chief, several other Republicans who voted for the 2007 energy bill signaled that they would be open to a national standard that accounted for regional differences and ranged beyond a straight renewables mandate.
Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) voted against the renewables amendment in 2007 "because he felt that a one-size-fits-all federal standard was not the right approach and that we should allow states to each set their own," spokesman Niel Wright said via e-mail. "[H]e voted for the final legislation because he has always supported investing in alternative and renewable energy sources and he thought the bill was strong in that regard.
"Going forward, Rep. Petri is open to discussing a federal standard but would still have many of the same concerns as he had in 2007 ... in formulating any standard, whether at the federal or state level, we should think broadly about what constitutes a renewable energy source," Wright continued.
Another lawmaker who supported the broader 2007 bill after voting against the renewables mandate, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), would craft an electricity standard by "empowering as many resources as possible and respecting the views of our respective states," spokeswoman Lisa Wright said.
For example, if a nationwide consensus on nuclear power is not possible, Bartlett would allow states that want to make it part of their energy mix to trade electricity credits with similarly inclined neighbors, Wright said.
"You're not going to get the House Energy and Commerce Committee to consider anything that doesn't have that type of regional flexibility," she added.
Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), who voted for both the renewables-mandate amendment and the broader energy bill in 2007, also hopes to see an inclusive approach, spokesman Phil Bloomer said. "We've got it all right here in central Illinois -- lots of coal, we've got a nuclear plant down the road, and we've got huge wind farms," he added.
The offices of several other Republicans who backed the 2007 energy bill that featured the renewables mandate did not respond by publication time to a request for comment on their openness to a CES this year, including Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Dave Reichert of Washington, Steven LaTourette of Ohio, Chris Smith of New Jersey and Todd Platts of Pennsylvania. The latter lawmaker co-sponsored the 15-percent-by-2020 renewables standard that garnered 32 GOP votes.
The three-and-a-half years that have passed since that debate, however, may prove an insurmountable eternity given the heightened partisanship on energy issues that has reigned since House Democrats in 2009 pushed through a climate bill that ultimately failed in the Senate. Indeed, the Upton-authored phaseout of incandescent light bulbs included in that 2007 energy bill has drawn harsh criticism from Rush Limbaugh and other conservative pundits.
David Jenkins, vice president for government affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection, noted that this year's Energy and Commerce roster "has a lot of players who are pro-fossil fuel," making Upton "not the best test case" for determining how deep the House-side support for a CES might lie.
Still, even Energy and Commerce Chairman Emeritus Joe Barton (R-Texas) -- who challenged Upton from the right for the panel's gavel and opposed the 2007 energy bill -- offered on the House floor during debate that year to "work together on a bipartisan basis on a renewable portfolio standard that could be supported."
Among the crop of swing Republicans on that year's energy bill, Jenkins pointed to Platts and Reichert as well as Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California, and Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey as "more of a barometer" of backing for a CES.
Yet Weiss, of the Center for American Progress' advocacy arm, said he saw a "more plausible pathway" for approval of a CES going through the Senate before being added during conference talks, sidestepping an early House vote. Even that outcome, he projected, could face long odds.
"[I]t's hard to imagine any [energy] legislation passing until there's a definite settlement of whether or not to suspend EPA's authority to address carbon pollution standards," Weiss said. "Because that issue will intrude on every other issue and lead to gridlock in the Senate."