In their razor-thin victory on climate change legislation Friday, House Democrats prevailed by holding just enough votes from members in coal states to offset substantial defections from colleagues in Republican-leaning districts, a National Journal analysis of the vote shows.
The historic 219-212 vote for the climate change legislation, which seeks to impose the nation's first mandatory reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming, divided Democrats much more sharply than the vote on President Obama's stimulus plan. With 44 Democrats voting against the climate change legislation and 211 voting yes, the measure cleared the House only with support from eight Republicans who broke from their party leadership to support it.
The interactive table below allows readers to analyze the vote from a variety of angles, including the members' margin of victory, whether Obama or John McCain carried their district, and whether their state is one of the 30 that rely on coal to generate at least 40 percent of its electrical power, according to federal Energy Information Administration figures. (Those states are designated in the chart as coal states.)
Viewing the results through those prisms reveals several clear patterns. In all, the findings suggest that calculations about the underlying political and ideological inclinations of the districts may have shaped the Democratic vote somewhat more powerfully than assessments of the districts' vulnerability to energy price increases if the legislation passed.
In both parties, nothing appeared to drive the outcome more than the presidential result in last November's election.
Of the 49 House Democrats who represent districts that McCain carried last year, fully 29 voted against the measure. By contrast, just 15 of the 207 Democrats from districts that Obama carried last year voted against the bill. (Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings, whose district backed Obama, did not vote, meaning "Obama Democrats" ended up splitting 191-15.) Put another way, while 59 percent of the Democrats from districts that McCain carried voted no, just 7 percent of Democrats in Obama-majority districts opposed the White House on the vote.
Similarly, seven of the eight Republicans who supported the measure represent districts that backed Obama last November. (The list included Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who's considering a bid for the president's former Senate seat, and Mike Castle of Delaware, who may run for the seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden.)
Still, in contrast with the Democrats from split districts, 27 of the 34 Republicans from Obama-districts held with their party and voted against the legislation. California crystallized that trend: Of the eight Republicans there in districts that Obama carried last year, only Mary Bono Mack from Palm Springs supported the bill.
Meanwhile, Republicans from districts that McCain carried voted against the bill by 141-1, with Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey the only supporter. (Two other "McCain Republicans" did not vote.)
Another telling, if somewhat less powerful measure, was the degree to which a member's state relied on coal to generate electricity. Thirty of the 121 Democrats from states that generate at least 40 percent of their power from coal voted against the bill; just 14 of the 134 Democrats from states that are less reliant on coal joined them in opposition. That means about one-in-four of the coal state Democrats voted no, compared to only a little over one-in-10 of everyone else.
Of the 29 "McCain Democrats" who opposed the bill, 21 represent states that are heavily dependent on coal. Six of the eight Republican supporters came from states that don't use much coal -- though the vast majority of all Republicans from those states opposed the bill.
Notwithstanding the coal connection, the bill actually drew somewhat broader regional support among Democrats than might have been anticipated. Not surprisingly, it drew overwhelming backing from Democrats from the East and West coasts -- states that rely little on coal and are generally sensitive to environmental concerns. In California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, 42 Democrats voted for the bill and just three voted no; in the 11 Northeastern states from Maryland to Maine, the combined Democratic vote was 69-6 in favor. The bill also drew a combined 12-3 Democratic vote in the Southwest states of Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona; the two Democrats from the Northern Mountain states of Utah and Idaho each opposed it.
The sponsors also maintained substantial support for the legislation even in the Midwestern states expected to generate the most opposition because of their heavy reliance on coal for electricity. Overall 48 of the 60 Democrats from the Midwest and the Plains states supported the bill, including 10 of 12 in Illinois, 8 of 10 in Ohio, and all eight in Michigan. Even so, across these Heartland states, the sole Democratic Representatives from North and South Dakota each voted against the legislation, as did three of the five Democrats from Indiana and both Democrats from West Virginia.
Still, the most widespread Democratic defections came from Southern states, most of which backed McCain over Obama last November. Eighteen of the 44 Democratic "no" votes came from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy; 40 Southern Democrats supported the bill. That means nearly a third of Southern Democrats opposed the bill, a higher defection rate than in the Midwest and Plains (20 percent), much less the Northeast (8 percent) and the Pacific West (just under 7 percent).
Most Republicans from every region opposed the bill. But the meager support was concentrated in the Northeast (five members who voted yes) and the West Coast (two supporters), with Kirk from Illinois casting the final affirmative vote.
Initially, few observers believed the House could pass climate change legislation this year amid a severe economic downturn. But several factors strengthened its prospects. The principal sponsors, Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, skillfully negotiated compromises that allowed the bill to attract support not only from prominent Democrats linked to coal and rural interests (led by Virginia's Rick Boucher and Minnesota's Collin Peterson), but also to draw almost unprecedented backing from utility companies that typically have fought Democratic environmental initiatives. (A handful of House liberals opposed the bill Friday on the grounds that it conceded too much to industry.)
The legislation was also an unmistakable personal priority for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a centerpiece of the domestic agenda for Obama, whose approval ratings remain around 60 percent. An ABC/Washington Post survey this week showed that a 56 percent majority of Americans supported action to reduce carbon emissions, even if it raised energy bills $10 a month, about as much as the Environmental Protection Agency this week estimated the bill would cost.
If the bill had still failed despite all of those assets, the collapse might have cast a long shadow over the remainder of the party's ambitious agenda this year, including health care. Instead, House Democrats held together just enough to move the climate change legislation forward into the Senate.
The House's regional voting patterns underscore the challenge facing the climate change bill on that stage of its journey. Surprisingly broad support from House Democrats in states such as Missouri, Virginia, Michigan and Ohio could make it easier for Democratic senators from those states to also back climate change legislation.
But the opposition from the sole Democratic representatives in North Dakota, South Dakota and Louisiana; both Democratic representatives from West Virginia; and majorities of the Democratic delegations from Arkansas and Indiana capture the political pressures facing Democratic senators from those states on this issue.
As tight as the vote was in the House, the margin for error is even narrower in the Senate: Democrats now hold 59 seats and will probably need 60 votes to advance the bill against a virtually-certain Republican filibuster.
This article appears in the June 27, 2009, edition of National Journal.