The passage of historic climate change legislation by the House of Representatives last Friday has thrust to the forefront a sharp debate within the Republican Party over how much ideological and political orthodoxy should be demanded of its members.
In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, otherwise known as Waxman-Markey, attention within conservative circles turned to the eight Republican lawmakers who supported the measure. The bill had passed by a margin of 219 to 212. Even the most mathematically challenged would understood that had four of those Republicans switched their votes, the legislation might have died on the House floor.
And so the GOP began the process of, what one Democratic strategist called, "eating its own." A classic western "Wanted" posted was sent around the web accusing the eight Republicans -- Reps. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Mike Castle (Del.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John McHugh (N.Y.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Leonard Lance (N.J.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), and Chris Smith (N.J.) -- of "selling out taxpayers." Rush Limbaugh, in the process of ridiculing the bill's sponsor, Rep. Henry Waxman, damned the Republican Party for facilitating the legislation's passage.
Michelle Malkin, the prominent conservative commentator and writer, mocked the those Republicans who "helped the Democrats pass a junk science-based, massive national energy tax." Another conservative blogger, Stacy McCain, demanded that the movement cut off donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee in retaliation for the betrayal.
"What's the point of giving money to the national party if, on key votes, Republican members of the House are indistinguishable from Nancy Pelosi?" she asked. McCain went on to suggest that John Sullivan, a GOP lawmaker from Oklahoma should have left rehab for alcohol treatment in order to cast a vote, much like Rep. Patrick Kennedy did for the Democrats.
The visceral reaction seems drawn not just from philosophical objections to the bill, which would institute a cap-and-trade system to reset drastically the way the government regulates pollution, but also from the political implications that stem from having Republicans support a largely Democratic measure. To the extent that Democrats can now point to those eight GOP lawmakers and claim bi-partisanship, they will. More importantly, the defections weaken the attacks that GOP leadership was gearing to launch in the wake of Waxman-Markey's passage. When House Minority Whip Eric Cantor declared on Monday that there is "no question that there are going to be very dire consequences for those who voted for this bill," was he including members of his own party?
"Any ads that come from the Republican Party of No on the energy bill against Dems can very easily be used against the eight Republicans who were the deciding votes for the energy bill," emailed one Democratic operative. "It's not that hard to hit the forward button.
In the end, not everyone was terribly surprised by the defection of the eight Republicans. Democrats on the Hill say that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had the votes to pass the measure regardless of how many Republicans came on board. Forty-four Democrats ended up opposing the bill, but largely because they were granted license to cast those votes (hoping to appeased more conservative constituencies). Those eight Republicans found themselves pulled in a diametrically opposite direction.
"I think each had different reasons for voting for the bill, mostly electoral self-preservation," said Steve Hayward, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in an e-mail. "Reichert, in suburban Seattle, had a major TV ad campaign from the greens urging him to vote for the bill... I suspect he feared he might lose the next election if he opposed it. Mary Bono Mack, who has a huge windfarm in her district, actually seems to believe in the bill; her late husband Sonny never would have gone for it... I do think it is a mistake to suggest, though, that had these eight Republicans opposed the bill it would have lost. I am sure Pelosi had eight more votes if she needed them among Democrats who are worried about re-election."
Also, it should be noted that some of the more moderate voices in the conservative movement have begrudgingly excused the lawmakers for the heterodoxy. The real test of ideological purity, they argue, will come when Congress takes up health care.
"Each of the eight had a record that made their vote unsurprising. They had green records with endorsements from groups like sierra and others," said Soren Dayton, a GOP strategist who wrote about the topic on the site, TheNextRight. "I think that health care is a different issue. I don't think that those eight are vulnerable in the same way."