POLITICS:

Eight House Republicans, after carrying climate effort last year, fend off attacks

A tiny knot of outliers -- eight Republicans -- left the House floor last summer facing threats of electoral ambush, "heartache" from constituents, and an online wanted poster declaring them turncoats.

The challenges came. But the lawmakers are still around, more than a year after breaking ranks with 96 percent of their caucus to provide the deciding votes for a mega-bill that would make carbon dioxide a tradable commodity. They voted for cap and trade.

Some of the eight members weathered a backlash from Tea Party primary challengers this summer. One, meanwhile, is favored to capture the vice president's remaining Senate term, while another is tangling with the White House in a close race to take President Obama's former seat in the same chamber.

For some in the small group, those victories would symbolize a ironic ending to an uneasy year. Triumph could come despite White House campaigning against Reps. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Michael Castle of Delaware, members of the climate eight who took electoral risks for bipartisanship -- a theme of Obama's presidency.

"There is a sweet irony from the Republican perspective, because they will be replacing Barack Obama and Joe Biden [in the Senate]," said Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican who supported the cap and trade bill. "I do not believe this White House has been particularly bipartisan in its first year and a half."

The group of eight has been tattooed by political challenges. Three members are from New Jersey, where all of them -- Reps. Frank LoBiondo, Christopher Smith and Lance -- faced primary battles, and won. But not before their belief in climate change was attacked.

"CO2 constitutes a minuscule percentage of the planet's atmosphere and is NOT responsible for global warming," David Larsen, who lost to Lance in the state's Republican primary in June, said on his website. Larsen took 31 percent of the primary vote, to Lance's 57 percent, and launched an animated Web ad highlighting Lance's cap-and-trade vote to question his party loyalty.

"Aren't you a Republican?" a cartoon character asks Lance.

Other members of the climate eight, including Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California and Kirk of Illinois, who's running for Obama's Senate seat, also skated through their primary races. Castle of Delaware faces a Sept. 14 primary challenger to finish Biden's Senate term in Christine O'Donnell, who was endorsed by the Tea Party Express.

Get him before he votes again

Her campaign is warning that Castle could provide the swing vote for a climate bill in November or December, an unlikely scenario in which the Senate takes up a cap-and-trade bill in the lame duck session. The winner of the special election will be seated immediately

"He has already voted for Cap and Tax, and he will do it again," O'Donnell says on her website.

The seventh member of the group, former Rep. John McHugh of New York, was appointed Secretary of the Army by Obama. The president nominated McHugh on June 2, 2009, a few weeks before the Armed Services Committee member cast his crucial vote for the cap-and-trade measure. He left the House several weeks later to assume his new post.

The final member, Rep. Dave Reichart of Washington state, has been less inclined than some of his group colleagues to backtrack on his climate position of last year. Reichart still emphasizes on his website that the "mounting effects" of global warming is "one of the fundamental challenges" to the nation. He touts his support for cap and trade.

Washington's primary is Aug. 17, and Reichart's opponents are aiming at his climate stance.

"Folks, America is in a life or death struggle against RINOs and Progressives who must be fought and neutralized, not elected," Ernest Huber, a Republican primary candidate, says in a public statement posted online by the state election office. For him, RINOS are "Republicans in name only."

"If you want more of Obama, then vote for Reichart," he adds.

Some backtracking

Opponents of cap and trade have good reason to target the climate eight. The group ensured that the sprawling measure succeeded. As 44 Democrats were opposing the bill, the small group fortified Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) daring effort to test the legislation's support on the floor. In the end, 211 Democrats voted yes for the measure; it needed 216 votes to pass. The climate eight gave it 219.

Since then, several of them have recharted their climate course. The repositioning came after a series of events further exposed their votes to criticism. The Senate, for example, flailed for months as it sought 60 votes for a cap-and-trade measure, finally abandoning the effort altogether last month. That made the House's vote largely meaningless, without the benefit of enacting a successful program that lawmakers could promote as a victory.

Then there's Copenhagen, where world leaders failed to establish an international agreement lowering emissions. That could have provided political cover to House members. Instead, it became a reason to backtrack.

"I would not vote for it again in its current form because of the lack of progress in Copenhagen," Lance of New Jersey said of the cap-and-trade bill. "I don't think we can do this alone. China and India have to come aboard."

Lance continues to take heat for his climate vote. His Democratic opponent, Ed Potosnak, who has a background in teaching chemistry, promises to make Lance's "flip flopping" an issue in the general election.

"He took a tough vote to protect our air and put in place a cap-and-trade system, and now he's saying in the primary that he would not take that vote again, instead [is] aligning himself with the conservative leadership of the Republican Party, supporting big oil and offshore drilling," Potosnak said. "That is going to play an issue."

Will Senate be a climate-friendly place next year?

It's clear, however, that the House climate bill, offered by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), is politically threatening to even Democrats. Potosnak sidestepped a question about whether he would have voted for it.

"I think there are some serious problems with the House bill," he said.

The political resiliency of the climate eight has convinced some observers that the next Congress might even offer a kinder landscape for passing climate legislation. If Castle and Kirk ascend to the Senate, the chamber might have more moderate Republicans willing to join Democrats on cap and trade, says Rob Sisson, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection.

"If you add those people to the Senate, all of a sudden ... there is a larger group of Republican senators who understand the problem, would like to see it solved in a market oriented conservative fashion," Sisson said. "I think the Senate may actually be more fertile ground next year for climate policy."

The Cook Political Report sees a likely win for Castle in Delaware, but it's a tossup in Illinois between Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer. Obama planned to headline a fundraiser last night for Giannoulias.

"Obviously, Kirk's vote could be problematic for him downstate," Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook report, said of Kirk's climate vote, noting that Illinois' rural south might flinch at cap and trade. "That is potentially his problem."

Still, no matter who wins those two races, it's likely the Senate will be less accommodating to climate legislation next year, when the Republican minority is expected to grow by at least five seats, she said.

Likely Senate winners, such as North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven and former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, both Republicans, "will never vote for cap and trade," Duffy said.

If elected, they would replace two retiring Democratic senators - Byron Dorgan and Evan Bayh - considered potential supporters of climate legislation.

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