As Democrats and the White House cheered House passage Friday of a comprehensive climate and energy bill, Republicans were hustling to portray the vote as a political weapon that would allow them to regain large numbers of House seats in 2010.
The minority party's push began well before the climate legislation reached the floor, as Republicans spent weeks trying to break moderate Democrats from the Midwest and agricultural states from their party's leadership.
Their efforts failed to bring down the bill itself, but Republican leaders made clear that they believe the floor vote will be seen as a long-term political victory for their party.
As the House's presiding officer read the final 219-212 tally in favor of the Democratic bill on Friday, Republicans applauded and chanted 'Btu, Btu!' -- a reference to a 1993 energy bill pushed by the Clinton administration that cleared the House, then ran aground. Some say Democratic backing for that bill laid the groundwork for the Republican landslide House election in 1994 that ended a half-century of Democratic rule.
"No question that there are going to be very dire consequences for those who voted for this bill," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
And Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) declared, "I think many of us think this is the beginning of the end of their majority. I think it's that far over the top."
The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly pounced on the results with a barrage of press releases targeting Democrats who voted for the bill. One went to the districts of 44 House Democrats, accusing them of voting for "higher costs, higher unemployment."
"Frank Kratovil's vote to kill jobs in his district and hand his constituents higher costs during these difficult times is nothing short of insulting," NRCC communications director Ken Spain said in a release that went to the district of the first-term Maryland Democrat.
"The people of Maryland sent Frank Kratovil to Washington to represent their values and restore prosperity, and he has returned the favor by once again bowing to his party bosses at the expense of middle class families. Unfortunately for Kratovil, he will have to answer to Maryland voters rather than Nancy Pelosi when Election Day rolls around."
Another release targeted seven Democrats -- including several freshmen -- who had at various points criticized the legislation but ultimately voted for it.
Certainly, there have been other issues that Republicans have tried to use to turn public opinion against the Obama administration and congressional Democrats -- namely, the bailouts of major U.S. automakers, the perceived failures of the economic stimulus package and early shots on health-care reform.
But top Republicans say the climate bill may be the first defining vote of the 111th Congress -- one that can be used to campaign against what they hope voters see as an overreaching Democratic majority.
"These are votes that people will remember," said Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a former House Republican Whip and the current front-runner for the Republican nomination in Missouri's 2010 U.S. Senate race.
'Jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs'
Still, even as Republicans are laying the groundwork to make the climate bill a major campaign theme in 2010, it is not clear that the public will be on their side.
To be sure, there are a number of Democrats who believe the legislation could damage their constituents or their own political futures. But recent polling indicates that while voters may not place a high premium on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they do overwhelmingly support policies that will create renewable-energy jobs and wean America from foreign oil -- themes that Democratic leaders have used to sell the legislation and seem likely to use in 2010.
In a statement released moments before the House vote on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made little mention of the legislation's environmental benefits. She summed up the legislation this way: "Jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in an interview before the vote that Democratic candidates have no intention of running away from the bill.
"Our members are going to be proud to talk about this," Van Hollen said. "I think people are going to be boldly going out and talking about how this is important for this country's clean energy future.
"They're going to be on offense on this."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also pointed out Friday that both major parties' presidential nominees last year supported cap-and-trade legislation -- a sign that the the political mainstream is with the Democrats on this issue.
Hoyer also argued that the Republican argument that Democrats lost their majority in part because of the 1993 energy bill vote was simply not true. "The Btu tax of 1993 has sort of gotten mythic proportions," Hoyer said. "My own view, that really was not a deciding factor in anybody's election."
And in an interview on ABC's "This Week," White House adviser David Axelrod went back to another theme that Democrats have repeatedly used against the GOP, attempting to portray it as a "party of no" that has failed to offer solutions to key problems.
"The real issue is, what is the Republican strategy for creating jobs?" Axelrod said. "This bill actually, they call it a job killer, it will create millions of green jobs, the jobs of the future."
Indeed, some Democrats argue there is a danger for Republicans opposing such legislation, pointing to the popularity of energy issues with moderate voters and to the fact that eight of the GOP's more moderate members -- some in potential swing districts -- voted with the Democratic majority on the bill.
"We're trying to solve a problem that has languished for a decade, the problem of energy that has bedeviled us for a long time," Axelrod said. "And they're talking about how they can use it as an issue, inaction as somehow a strategy. And that's not a strategy."
Reporters Darren Samuelsohn, Ben Geman and Noelle Straub contributed.
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