The Tea Party is making its presence known in Washington this week. Even before freshmen lawmakers were sworn in, party leader Senator Jim DeMint was trying to push the GOP to the right by criticizing what the conservatives call Rinos: Republicans in name only (so much for the big tent party).
I expect the 112th Congress to include many more of these demands to show far-right credentials. But believe it or not, I also think it will present opportunities to move key environmental priorities forward.
Sure, this Congress includes a larger percentage of people with completely crazies ideas than the previous one and there is no doubt that it is going to be harder to improve the health of our people, air, water, and land. But that doesn’t mean environmental progress has to come to screeching halt.
Indeed, we have never relied on one party alone to achieve green goals. From the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 signed by the first President Bush, the environmental movement has succeeded only when we garnered bipartisan support.
And even now, in the midst of Tea Party fervor, we have the potential to do it again. Why? Because I see signs that the GOP hasn’t lost all its ability to moderate and reach across the aisle.
One of the most surprising signs comes from a Tea Party darling himself. Patrick Toomey won a Senate seat from Pennsylvania thanks in part to a Sarah Palin endorsement and a lot of antiestablishment rhetoric. And yet this week Toomey said that he may not vote for everything Tea Party standard bearer Jim DeMint asks for—including opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which he said he would have supported.
Toomey also went so far as to co-author an op-ed in USA Today with Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. Together they wrote: “Cross-party alliances often make for the most effective partnerships.”
But here is what I find most revealing about the GOP’s relationship to the far right: new Majority Leader John Boehner did not give any influential posts on House committees to Tea Party lawmakers. The positions he did offer were minor at best.
Why would he undercut a political force he himself benefitted from in the November elections? Because he knows that races are won or lost according to the independent voter. In the past few elections, those voters have been swinging back and forth between parties.
Boehner and his colleagues know that just because they got the independents in 2010 doesn’t mean they will keep them the next time.
The Cook Political Report has already issued its assessment of which lawmakers are vulnerable in 2012. That means the lawmakers being sworn in this week are already running for election, and if there are running in a pendulum district, they can’t indulge all their ideological insanity and expect to keep their seats.
Of course, it is completely possible that the GOP will plunge into Civil War and the Tea Party faction will head into the 2012 elections with greater influence. But I think it is more probable that GOP lawmakers will try to distance themselves from the craziness.
That leaves those of us who care about the environment and public health with an important job to do: we have to present lawmakers with opportunities to demonstrate their sanity.
We are not going to pass a cap and trade bill through this Congress, but there are openings on the legislative agenda to build bipartisan backing for common sense solutions.
Reforming the rules governing toxics to keep our children safe from cancer and other diseases, using the transportation bill to promote American jobs, and passing an energy bill that helps America do more using less energy—all of these policies are good for American families and all of them have garnered some GOP support in the past.
Now we need to work with all the leaders who want to build a cleaner future for America—and prove they are sane lawmakers.