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Raising the Stakes in the Energy Debate

(AP / CBS)
The passage of a landmark energy and climate change bill in the House of Representatives on Friday represented a major victory for President Obama and Democratic House leaders who managed to wrangle together votes among their diverse party -- tying together the liberal wing of the party with congressmen representing moderate farmers and factory workers.

The bill, however, passed by a razor-thin margin with a vote of 219 to 212 -- with 44 Democrats defecting (and eight Republicans voting for it). Now, as the bill moves to the Senate, both sides of the energy debate are upping the ante politically and turning the legislation into fodder for future elections.

The Republican party is taking aim at junior Democrats from moderate districts who voted for the legislation, betting they will pay the price for their votes. The liberal Netroots, meanwhile, are considering a "full-court press" against senators who may not vote in favor of a more liberal version of the bill.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is planning to launch television and radio ads, as well as robo-calls, against junior Democrats who could be vulnerable in the 2010 elections because of their support for the climate change legislation, the Politico reports. One congressman who could be targeted, for instance, is Rep. Harry Teague (D-N.M.), the first Democrat elected to represent the conservative 2nd District -- which depends on oil and gas production -- in more than 25 years.

"There's a reason why over 40 Democrats in swing districts voted against this," NRCC spokesman Ken Spain told Politico. "They realized that voting for [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi's bill wasn't worth the price of millions of dollars in TV ads that would be required to put up what will ultimately be a futile defense of this vote. The question is: What were the others thinking?"

Republicans who voted against the bill were clearly thinking of their congressional victory in 1994 as they chanted on the House floor last week, "Btu! Btu!" The chant alluded to a 1993 energy bill the Clinton administration pushed through the House. The bill ultimately failed, but some say it boosted the Republicans' standing that year.

By contrast, some liberal organizations are saying Democrats will lose ground if they do not strengthen the energy bill., a powerful liberal grassroots advocacy group, is asking its members whether it should use its influence to "turn up the heat on senators who might be tempted to side with Big Oil and Coal."

The organization sent an e-mail to its members Monday saying that the energy legislation will not accomplish Mr. Obama's goals of creating a clean energy economy or new jobs because "Big Oil and Coal lobbyists, working in cahoots with some conservative Blue Dog Democrats, weakened the bill terribly." MoveOn wants members to vote on whether the group should use its resources to "fight to... fix the energy bill" or not. If two-thirds of the voters approve, the group will press the issue in the Senate.

"If we decide to proceed with this campaign together, we'll boost progressive champions like those who fought in the House, and expose conservatives who do the bidding of the oil and coal industry," the e-mail says.

MoveOn, which boasts 5 million members, has already used its clout to target Democrats the group considers too weak on health care reform, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

The environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes the energy legislation for the concessions it gives to polluting industries, has also asked its supporters to appeal to Congress for legislation to end global warming.

The fight reveals what's at stake as Mr. Obama pushes an aggressive agenda that will take significant compromising to win bipartisan support -- or even make it through a diverse Democratic majority.

"This is when it gets harder," Mr. Obama said at a fundraiser last night about his agenda. "This is when the criticism gets louder... this is exactly the moment we need to fight the hardest."

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