In the Democrats' hunt for votes to pass climate change legislation, California Rep. Mary Bono Mack represents something of a political outlier -- a House Republican who doesn't strongly oppose the bill.
The seven-term congresswoman insists that she is still undecided, saying she will not make a decision until after next week's amendment process has run its course. But for House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Bono Mack remains the best hope of picking up a Republican vote.
"I think it's important we move this process forward and let the Senate take its crack at it and see where the process takes us," Bono Mack told E&E yesterday. "In California, we are different creatures. I believe my constituents see this as innovation, and I believe they want to get off fossil fuels."
With a 13-seat Democratic advantage on the committee, Waxman may never need Bono's vote. That is clear by the fact Waxman has focused his attention in locking up support from moderates and conservatives on his side of the aisle.
Yet the last few weeks have also clearly demonstrated that even with their overwhelming majority in Congress, Democrats have little margin for error on a bill that has proven to be divisive even within their own party. To put it simply, Waxman could use a few Republican votes, if for nothing else than to say that the legislation is bipartisan.
"We stand together in trying to move a process of legislation that I think should be bipartisan and I hope will be," Waxman said yesterday. "It should bring together the diversity of people from the different regions of our country because we take their concerns into our recognition to try and address them."
Interest groups on the left have taken notice that Bono Mack is a potential "yes" vote on the bill.
Her district has already seen a series of campaign-style television advertisements urging her to "break from big oil" and support green job creation. And Bono Mack explained that the phone in her Southern California office has been ringing with constituents urging her to vote for the legislation.
"People in my district don't say, 'Vote no,'" she said. "They say, 'Do you believe man creates climate change?' 'Do you believe that CO2 is the cause?' There are questions about the science that people have," she said. "But by and large, my phone has been ringing off the hook and people are supportive."
Bono Mack said she spoke to Waxman early in the legislative process, and they planned to meet again in the committee chairman's office yesterday.
A district moving left
For Bono Mack, voting for the climate bill is more than a philosophical decision; it could have serious political implications.
Bono Mack faces a unique political situation as one of the few committee moderates on either side of the aisle who appears to be more worried about the political hit she would take from opposing the bill, rather than supporting it.
On top of that, she is one of only a handful of committee Republicans who is even remotely close to being politically vulnerable -- only four out of the 23 GOP members are in districts that voted for President Obama last year.
Yes, Bono Mack has seen no serious electoral challenge since she won her seat in a 1998 special election. But political analysts say it is certainly not out of question that she could have a tough race on her hands in the near future.
"The drift in partisanship has been in the Democrats' favor and there are a number of districts have become closer in the party balance and hers is one of them," said Gary Jacobson, a California political expert at University of California, San Diego. "Whether it has gone far enough to threaten her is unclear."
The 45th District stretches from Riverside County east of Los Angeles all the way to the Nevada border, and includes a number of desert resort areas such Palm Springs.
Just like every other California congressional district, it was specifically drawn after the 2000 census to lean heavily toward one party -- in this case the Republicans. And indeed Bono Mack has won most of her recent elections with about 60 percent of the vote. President George W. Bush carried the district twice.
But something changed in 2008. While Bono Mack cruised to another easy victory against an underfunded challenger, her district went for Obama by 5 percentage points -- one of eight GOP-held California districts that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate.
It may be anomaly as Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign was all but nonexistent in California, and Obama received a higher percentage of the statewide vote than any Democrat in more than 70 years.
Still, Jacobson said there is little doubt that some parts of California -- including parts of Bono Mack's district -- have moved to the left in recent years, making it possible for a strong candidate in a favorable political climate to give the Republican incumbent a tough race.
"She's not invulnerable, but right now the odds are against it," Jacobson said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks Bono is vulnerable, placing her on the list of targeted GOP incumbents and firing off press releases spotlighting any votes she makes that are opposite Obama.
Bono Mack already has one Democratic challenger in 2010 -- Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet. And her 2008 opponent -- former California Assembly Member Julie Bornstein (D) -- is also reportedly mulling another run.
Pougnet is already campaigning in large part with a "green jobs" message.
"This election is all about jobs," Pougnet told the Palm Springs Desert Sun last week. "This is about jobs, jobs, jobs and a passionate leader who is here, who has created jobs, and who's starting to bring this valley in line with an entire new industry on sustainability and renewables."
It is still unclear if Pougnet can mount a series challenge -- he had only $11,000 in his campaign war chest at the end of the first quarter of 2009 and has taken some heat for his job performance as mayor.
But Jacobson noted that Bono Mack's biggest worry may not be 2010, but rather 2012 and beyond, when her district is presumably redrawn after the next census. "We're only going to have one more election under the current redistricting and her fate could be decided after that," he said.
There is almost no way to predict just what kind of district Bono's will be post-2010, but California pundits argue that an overwhelming majority of Golden State voters strongly support policies that are viewed as being pro-environment, particularly those dealing with climate change.
"It's politically necessary to be on that side statewide, there may be areas where that support isn't as strong," Jacobson said. "But broadly speaking, Californians support dealing with climate change."
For the moment, Jacobson said Bono Mack's district may be more mixed on energy and climate issues compared with coastal areas. But he said it is possible for a candidate to build a viable campaign focusing heavily on those issues.
"I could imagine someone campaigning on renewable energy in that district," he said, explaining that the region is a hub for both wind and solar power.
'I've never been paid more attention to in my entire life'
Environmental groups and their allies on the left have taken notice of Bono Mack's status on the fence, and they have targeted her just like many of moderate and conservative Democrats in the House.
Repower America -- an offshoot of former Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection -- recently started running ads in Bono Mack's district stating that climate change legislation would create 235,000 jobs in California alone. "Don't let the big oil boys do all the talking, tell Congress to vote for green energy jobs now," states the ad before flashing Bono Mack's office number on the screen.
The League of Conservation Voters also started an ad campaign this week in Bono Mack's district, along with perhaps the two most conservative Democrats on the committee: Reps. Baron Hill of Indiana and John Barrow of Georgia.
"Exxon and Enron lobbyists have dictated our energy policy for far too long," LCV President Gene Karpinski said in announcing the ad campaign. "Representatives Barrow, Bono Mack and Hill must seize this chance to take it back,"
Bono Mack said she has met with a number of environmental groups to discuss the legislation, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and 1Sky.
"I can tell you, I've never been paid more attention to in my entire life than I have in this debate," she said. "I don't know if I like it."
'I'm a potential yes and a potential no'
Despite the political pressure, Bono Mack says her vote depends on whether her concerns can be addressed.
"I have between now and Tuesday to raise my issues and my points and certainly will have some amendments to offer, some amendments to support and oppose," Bono Mack said. "At the end of the day, I don't have any guarantees. It depends on what happens in the markup."
Bono Mack singled out nuclear power as one item that she would like to see addressed, saying provisions designed specifically to spur the development of the industry would go a long way to assuaging her, as well as other Republicans.
"A lot of frustration from people that it doesn't help promote nuclear power," she said. "To pick up any Republicans, I think they need to make sure that nuclear is in the bill, and not by omission, but by actual steps that work to promote nuclear power in the future. I think a lot of Republicans would like to see that."
In a letter sent yesterday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Bono Mack and five other moderate Republicans offered up several points of contention with the legislation. They complained that the bill would place additional costs on consumers while missing opportunities to achieve energy independence.
Bono Mack was the only one of the six with a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. The others: Mike Castle of Delaware, Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, John McHugh of New York, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
For his part, Waxman said yesterday he is still optimistic that he can get some Republicans on board, though he did not single out any by name.
"I'm not going to reach the conclusion I'm not going to get any votes from Republicans," he said. "I think a lot of them are going to hear from their utilities, from their labor unions, from their industries. I think a number of Republicans may view this bill differently than they did a month ago once they see the legislation."
Meanwhile, Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) has expressed confidence that his side of the aisle will be united against the legislation, recently portraying the bill as "most fundamental attack on free market capitalism in our lifetime."
But Bono Mack disputes that characterization.
"I think Joe in his heart believes this bill is terrible for America," she said. "I don't know that he could understand or see why I'd disagree with his position. I think Joe all along has known I'm a potential 'yes' and a potential 'no.'"
Click here to read the letter.
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