Will the ghost of cap and trade haunt Democrats tomorrow -- and beyond?

House Democrats are bracing for tough losses across the country today, and the controversial cap-and-trade climate bill is sure to be part of any post-election analysis.

The Democrats' anticipated loss of the House will be attributed to the sour economy and unpopular health care reform law, the Wall Street bailout and economic stimulus bills, among other things.

But Democrats' vote to support the House cap-and-trade climate bill has played prominently in more than a dozen races across the country and has haunted moderate Democrats across the nation, as critics call cap and trade one more example of an overreaching government. Republicans have labeled the bill a "job-killing energy tax" at a time when the nation's high unemployment rate is foremost in voters' minds.

"It does feed into the narrative of big, sweeping government action at a time when people are suspicious of government and soured on Washington," said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank.

Fifty-seven percent of House Democrats who are running in tight races or expected to lose today -- and 73 percent of the freshman Democrats in trouble -- voted in favor of the cap-and-trade bill in June 2009, according to an E&E Daily analysis of the Cook Political Report's race forecast.


President Obama recently highlighted the House cap-and-trade vote and health care bill as the votes Democrats made that were "right" for the country but were perhaps "bad politics" -- at least as far as members' re-election prospects were concerned. Obama has repeatedly urged voters to reward these lawmakers for their "politically courageous" votes.

But the vote may have also been "bad politics" in the way it was handled by House Democrats -- not to mention by the Senate or the White House. Unlike the health care, stimulus or bank bailout bills, the climate bill was never taken up by the Senate and never came close to Obama's desk.

"The session would have gone more smoothly if they had not done climate first" before health care, said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who is also a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

Retiring Democratic Rep. Vic Snyder of Arkansas, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who voted for the bill, said, "It was sausage-making at its finest, or worst, depending on how you view the metaphor."

"The process was a poor one. It was rushed. ... I understand how people could criticize it," he added.

Democrats' ultimate fate today and how the cap-and-trade vote is seen as affecting the outcome could make any future energy or climate votes that much more difficult for members in competitive districts as the policy debate becomes more and more politicized.

"I think that the other challenge moving forward is the politicization of climate change," Freed said. "It's almost become code to denigrate elitists, and it is going to make action on energy, which is a related but separate issue, next year potentially more difficult."

Political strategy

After Obama was inaugurated as president in 2009, House Democrats unleashed a formidable agenda consisting of a two-month blitz to pass a $787 billion stimulus bill, which passed in February 2009; four months of pushing the cap-and-trade climate bill, which passed in June 2009; and, finally, an eight-month slog to pass a financial regulation reform bill in December 2009 and a health care reform bill in February 2010.

But only the stimulus, health care reform and financial regulation bills made it through the "wet cement" that is the Senate, as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has described it. After months of talks, Senate negotiations on climate came to a standstill this summer as partisan bickering kept the upper chamber from passing even the smallest of energy bills.

Many lawmakers have criticized House leadership for forcing them to take a hard vote on a cap-and-trade bill without knowing whether Senate Democrats would also be able to take up and pass the bill.

"I frankly don't think the House gave it that much thought. I think they acted on what they thought was an important initiative at a time when the perception was that the new president and the Democrats in Congress had a lot of momentum," said Leon Billings, a retired lobbyist and former Democratic Senate staffer who helped write the Clean Air Act in 1970.

"It was only later that the leadership in the House began to realize ... that the Senate was going to become a cemetery rather than a maternity ward," Billings added. "It took awhile, way too long, for the Democrats in the House, Senate and White House to realize the magnitude of the assault that was going to be launched by the radical right and even longer to realize that it was going to take a real toll on the country."

Frost also blasted Democrats' costly political oversight, saying the cap-and-trade vote was "much harder" than health care.

"I think the White House and the leadership in the House made a mistake in bringing up climate change before health care," Frost said. "I think they should have done health care first -- that would have given them a victory. It wouldn't have taken so long to do health care first."

Bringing the climate vote up first made health care that much more contentious, Frost added.

Snyder, too, said Democrats are being punished for an imperfect bill they supported with the expectation it could be further improved after the Senate passed its version.

"The problem is it never got to phases two and three. The House members who voted for it knew it wasn't going to be law. I think that was very unfortunate we didn't get past that first step," he said.

Other Democratic strategists said it did not matter when the leadership took up these controversial issues.

"I just don't see that that vote contributed anything other than marginally to the narrative that Republicans cast," said pollster John Anzalone, a partner at Anzalone Liszt Research who frequently works for Democrats in conservative House districts.

"There was so much Republicans were using against Democrats. The climate bill really was so far down the list it was an afterthought in terms of Republicans hitting Democrats on it," he said.

But Elaine Kamarck, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and co-chairman of the U.S. Climate Task Force, has a different explanation for Democrats' early push to pass the climate bill. She said lingering enthusiasm after the 2008 Democratic sweep led party leaders to misread the political climate.

"There is a sense that all the Democrats overread their mandate -- whether it be the White House or Congress -- the excitement of these two huge elections" in 2006 and 2008, she said. "It's human, it's natural -- they overread their mandate."

"The other explanation," added Kamarck, who was a top aide to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration, "was that no one stopped to think how the dissatisfaction with Wall Street was going to play into a cap-and-trade plan."

Was a vote for climate worth it?

In at least a handful of races, Democrats have acknowledged support of the climate bill has hurt their chances for re-election.

Many of those candidates are freshmen from Republican-leaning districts who were elected in the 2008 Democratic sweep. But the candidates, and observers, are unapologetic in their support of the cap-and-trade bill.

"If standing up for these things costs me the election, then it does. But I stood up for what's right," Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio) said during a roundtable with business leaders last month (Greenwire, Oct. 29).

And Boccieri is not alone. Kamarck said Democrats' support of the climate bill is "definitely a factor" in their demise this election.

"All you've got to do is look at the commercials; clearly it's a factor. I think health care is a bigger one, but the climate bill was clearly a factor," she said.

Snyder, the retiring Democrat from Arkansas, said several of his colleagues from districts where the climate vote was unpopular told him they knew their support of the bill could cost them the election.

"I think for some members ... from difficult districts, they recognized they would have to go home and explain their vote," Snyder said. "Still ... there are times in the political process when you need to be on the right side of history."

Obama has praised the members for their courage.

"The fact is there are a bunch of folks who took really tough votes, that they knew were bad politics because they thought that they were the right things to do," Obama said last week on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." "They knew it was going to be a tough battle -- that these are generally pretty conservative districts -- and yet still went ahead and did what they thought was right."

"My hope in this election is that people who vote on the basis of what they think is right and have integrity and aren't just thinking about the next election, but are thinking about the next generation, that they are rewarded," Obama added.

Chief among those candidates is Virginia's freshman Rep. Tom Perriello, whom Obama stumped for last week -- both on the "Daily Show" and at a campaign rally in Charlottesville, Va. In recent weeks, Obama has also praised Boccieri and Colorado Rep. Betsy Markey for their tough votes on climate and health care. Markey is a decided underdog in her re-election battle, and Boccieri is in a close fight.

In 2008, Perriello defeated Democrat-turned-Republican incumbent Virgil Goode in Virginia's conservative 5th District, which includes both Charlottesville and the rural Southside region. Goode had held the seat since 1997, and since 2002 as a Republican. The district has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in the last several election cycles.

Perriello supported the House climate bill last summer and at the time said he could live with the vote costing him an election. But now he is fighting to keep his seat in a tight race against Republican state Sen. Robert Hurt. The last public poll on the race, taken Saturday by a GOP firm, showed Hurt up by 3 points -- a lead within the poll's 4.9-point margin of error. Perriello supported both the climate bill and the health care bill, among other strong Democratic measures.

"The reason I am here is because in this day and age, let's face it, political courage is hard to come by," Obama said at Friday's rally in Charlottesville. "The easiest thing to do, especially when you're a first-term congressman ... is make your decisions based on the polls. You put your fingers up to the wind, you check which way the political wind is blowing before you cast every vote. That's how a lot of folks think they should do their jobs in Washington."

"Tom Perriello went to Washington to do what's hard. He went to do what is right. And now the lobbyists and the special interests are going after him," Obama added.

Freshmen are not the only members facing the ax over their climate votes. Established Democrats from coal states, like Reps. Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Baron Hill of Indiana could also be voted out today after supporting the cap-and-trade bill.

"Energy is a regional issue that really caused some Democrats from coal-producing states and other energy-centric regions to cast a very difficult hard vote early in the congressional session. ... [I]t made it harder on themselves to pass later votes," said Frost, the former Texas congressman.

And the handful of Republicans who supported the climate measure have also taken flak for their votes. Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) identified his "yes" vote for cap and trade as a key reason behind his Senate primary loss to tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell.

And Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who is running a tight race to occupy Obama's old Senate seat, has said he wishes he could take back his vote on climate.

"We make a lot of errors in Congress, not out of malice or corruption. It's out of ignorance and lack of understanding of how a $14 trillion economy operates," Kirk said last week at a town hall meeting, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"As I traveled Illinois, I quickly saw the kind of damage that legislation would cause industries that were not heavily present in my congressional district: heavy manufacturing, agriculture, mining. I had to make a choice between higher employment in my state or sticking with the old vote," he added.

But in the end, it is the Democrats who face the most peril.

Pete Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group, Perriello's pollster, said last week that Democrats who supported unpopular measures in their districts like cap and trade often did so because "they felt they had to do it" for the good of the country.

"If Tom loses," Brodnitz said, "I suppose the lesson is vote for a lot of popular things."

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines