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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.

"That bill would just crucify Missouri. Voting for it, it just didn't make sense," said state Sen. Bill Stouffer, who is one of two well-financed Republican primary candidates hoping to unseat Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton in the fall. The GOP is using the climate change vote to accuse Skelton, now in his 34th year in Congress, of drifting from his moderate Midwestern roots.

"I vote for Ike Skelton. Everybody votes for Ike Skelton," said Kay Hoflander, chairman of the Lafayette County Republican Party. But when Skelton voted for the climate bill, "he quit representing his district," Hoflander said. "People now are saying, 'Ike used to be one of us.' "

Skelton, 78, rejects that accusation. He said his initial motivation for supporting the bill was to "control the EPA." Armed with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that gave the Environmental Protection Agency power to oversee carbon emissions, the Obama administration issued Congress an ultimatum: Unless it acted, the EPA would step in and impose tough new regulations. Better to have Congress do the job, Skelton argued, than a government agency that many farmers and manufacturers in Missouri view with scorn.

Some Democrats are defending themselves on the volatile issue by doubling down and promoting their votes as forward-looking, and others are staking out more business-friendly ground with other energy proposals. To blunt some of the criticism, Skelton joined Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) in sponsoring a bill that would ban the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases -- a measure that Boccieri and other Midwestern Democrats support.

Nowhere does the issue cut as sharply as along the I-70 corridor, the nearly 800-mile stretch from Pittsburgh to Kansas City that throughout the 20th century served as the nation's economic engine. The coal-fired smokestacks and steel mills that once symbolized an honest day's work throughout the region find themselves under assault as emitters of environmental poison, creating a difficult political dance for the region's lawmakers.

This I-70 region is home to at least 20 contested House races and five open Senate seats, including in Ohio, where this month GOP Senate candidate Rob Portman launched a TV campaign calling climate legislation "a job killer for Ohio." Republicans are trying to add the bill to a mix of tough votes that could flip enough races in this region to put the House back in GOP control and seriously dent the Democratic edge in the Senate.

Of the 15 House Democrats in this corridor who are in contested races, 10 voted for the climate legislation, giving Pelosi the decisive margin in the 219 to 212 victory in June 2009. Many Midwestern Democrats preferred not taking up the issue, at least until after health care was finished. Once Pelosi moved what she calls her "hallmark" issue ahead of health care last year, Obama led a final push to get the necessary votes.

Pelosi won over wavering Democrats such as Boccieri and Reps. Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), Baron P. Hill (Ind.) and Zack Space ((Ohio) -- each of whom faces a difficult reelection -- after intense negotiations designed to soften the blow of the initial proposal. The House bill would place new production costs on power plants, factories and oil refineries, requiring U.S. emissions to decline 17 percent by 2020. Creating a commodities market, the bill would require polluters to buy "credits" to cover their emissions; Midwestern farmers, among others, could sell "offsets" for pollutants they didn't emit.

But lofty talk about the securing the future of the planet is not likely to win over many voters who have lost their jobs.

In Boccieri's northeastern Ohio district, the manufacturing decline has been sharp and painful. Ten years ago, there were 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the Canton-Massillon region. By spring, the number had been cut nearly in half, to 24,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Boccieri said he knows his constituents are focused on the present. "All the average voter wants to know is, 'When my refrigerator is on, are my rates going to be lower or higher?' "

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