WASHINGTON -- After being elected with a strong mandate to cut spending, all Republicans don't agree on how best to rein in the deficit -- and some have become unlikely allies with green groups in the fight to gut federal subsidies of ethanol.
Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley was irked when his colleagues, Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) voiced their support for letting ethanol subsidies expire, claiming that Demint and Coburn should be willing to give up their oil-gas subsidies.
Coburn appears to be ready to accept the challenge -- and green groups, for their part, couldn't be happier about it.
"This is exactly the chink in the armor we're hoping to see," said Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce. "That these fiscal hawks will be willing to go after and gore their own..."
John Krieger, a staff attorney with US PIRG, said that if the GOP is serious about reining in government spending, more lawmakers will have to join Coburn in calling for an end to ethanol subsidies.
"They're going to have to find common ground or they're going to be completely paralyzed," he said. "And I think any member now understands the punishment that comes with paralysis and not taking action especially on an issue that so many Americans voted on in the last election."
Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the issue is beyond left and right.
"I do think when you have... politicians as diverse as Senator Feinstein and Senators McCain, DeMint and Coburn, and Al Gore, all agreeing that a tax credit is wasteful and bad for our deficit and therefore bad for our economy, and bad for our environment -- that that's got to be a wake-up call for Congress and the president that it's time to put politics and partisanship and party down and really focus on the principles and protecting the environment. What does the Tea Party say? Put principles ahead of party. That's what a lot of people are saying -- it's time to do that here."
Greene said that the money being spent on corn ethanol is money that can't be invested in other clean energy technologies, noting 75 percent of the money the federal government spends on renewables goes to corn ethanol.
Krieger told HuffPost that there's significant interest in this issue among Republican moderates and that PIRG's lobbying efforts have received a very positive response, especially in the Senate. He declined to name names.
Indeed ending ethanol subsidies is a top priority for PIRG, which authored a report this fall identifying "patently wasteful programs" like the ethanol tax credit.
Pierce told HuffPost that she thinks these subsides will be a key area for environmental reforms in the next Congress. With fiscal problems being what they are, she said some of the sacred cow subsidies will likely be falling under the knife. "I do think they're going to roll back both ethanol and oil and gas subsidies, although you know the oil industry will fight hard as hell to keep it," Pierce said.
She noted that many Democratic offices have long sided with green groups in seeing ethanol as more of a boondoggle than an environmental boon, but added that she's happy to have some company from the other side of the aisle.
"We enviros have always been trying to go after the oil and gas subsidies to level the playing field for clean energy," Pierce added. "So we're delighted to have our friend Tom Coburn pick up the gauntlet and go after both issues -- ethanol, and oil and gas subsidies -- because not only is it good fiscal policy, it would be good environmental policy."
It's rare good news amid a political climate that looks to be bleak for environmental advocates.
"There's not a lot of bright sunshine on the horizon if you look at trying to move a proactive environmental agenda in the House and the Senate, where ideas go to die," said Pierce. "But this may be one area that we can make some advances in."