Among House Democrats in Rust Belt, a sense of abandonment over energy bill

President Obama and other Democratic leaders appealed to a gathering of prominent liberal activists Saturday, seeking to win back a disenchanted constituency that appears uninterested in helping the party avoid large losses in November's midterm elections.
By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When Democratic Rep. John Boccieri went home to Ohio early this year to talk with voters in his Canton-based district, he figured he would have to do battle with at least some constituents over his support for health-care reform. And the economic stimulus. And the auto company bailouts.

But at a meeting with business leaders, he had to come up with fast answers on something completely different: Why, the businessmen wanted to know, had Boccieri voted for a bill last summer to cap carbon emissions, which they feared would drive up their energy bills in the middle of a recession?

Boccieri said he was tired of wars based on "petrol dictators and big oil."

"If I can take a tough vote today, I'm going to take that vote," said the freshman lawmaker, an Air Force reservist who flew C-130s over Iraq for more than a year.

But 13 months after that tough vote, Boccieri and dozens of other House Democrats along the Rust Belt are not at all happy with the way things have turned out. The White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had assured reluctant members that the Senate would take up the measure. Although Senate passage wasn't a sure thing, House Democrats hoped to go back home to voters with a great story to tell -- about reducing dependence on foreign oil, slowing climate change and creating jobs.

(Campaign 2010: I-70 battleground races)

That didn't happen. Senate leaders, sensing political danger, repeatedly put off energy legislation, and the White House didn't lean on them very hard to make it a priority. In the aftermath of the gulf oil spill, the Senate is set to take up a stripped-down bill next week, but the controversial carbon-emissions cap is conspicuously missing.

This has left some House Democrats feeling badly served by their leaders. Although lawmakers are reluctant to say so publicly, their aides and campaign advisers privately complain that the speaker and the president left Democrats exposed on an unpopular issue that has little hope of being signed into law.

Some Democrats liken the situation to that of the 1993 "Btu" tax. The House passed the tax, but the Senate never took it up. Many House Democrats felt hung out on a limb in the 1994 elections, when Republicans reclaimed control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

(Watch: Paul Kane on ABC's 'Top Line')

House leaders stand behind the 2009 vote. Asked whether it was a mistake in light of the Senate's inaction, Pelosi joked that she would answer a different question. "We staked out a bold position," she said, "one that was a consensus within our caucus, one that received some Republican votes. We are very proud of it."

Throughout the winter and spring, as the health-care debate dominated Washington's attention, lawmakers faced less scrutiny on climate change and some thought the controversy might recede. But Republicans are reviving it as a campaign issue.

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