The (Slow, Tentative) Greening of the GOP

House members like Rep. Kevin McCarthy are still avid fossil-fuel proponents, but they've begun to advocate for renewables, too.

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Kevin McCarthy (AP)

Each January, when Congress gavels a new session to order, the party in charge rolls out a series of bills laying out its political agenda -- and often they're predictable variations on well-worn themes. So it was when House Republicans launched the year with a bill that demanded President Obama present a plan to wipe out the federal deficit, one that slashed pay for federal workers, and one that sought to increase renewable energy.

(Record scratch.) Wait, what?

It's true: The same party that had just spent the previous year eviscerating Obama on the campaign trail for his green-energy agenda and the bankruptcy of Solyndra was now signaling that it was ready to go quietly, carefully greener. That message will be amplified this summer, when a squadron of House Republicans calling itself the House Energy Action Team -- yes, HEAT -- will hit town halls and TVs with a new set of energy talking points that, while still embracing oil and gas drilling, also say good things about energy efficiency and renewables.

The unlikely figure behind the effort -- the captain of the HEAT squad -- is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the GOP whip whose district sits squarely in an oil patch. More than anyone, it was McCarthy who politicized energy as a standoff between "Drill, baby, drill" Republicans and Solyndra-loving, greenie liberals. Now he wants to use energy policy to help close that divide. The bill offered in January, which would boost hydropower in the Northwest, was a start.

"Elections happen in November; now is the time to govern," he told National Journal in his office, sitting beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Like McCarthy himself, the portrait isn't as traditional as you'd expect: It's Lincoln rendered in Jackson Pollock-esque black splotches. With campaign messaging over with, McCarthy wants to bring forth a series of small, modest energy bills that could attract some Democratic support. "Let's first enter the places that we're more united on. You crawl before you walk, and you walk before you run. If you start out and build a coalition and build trust on both sides, we can keep doing harder bills," he said.

That it's McCarthy assuming this role matters. Elected in 2006, he rocketed to the No. 3 position in House leadership after making himself indispensable to the party's campaign-planning operations in the 2010 Republican takeover of the House. Along with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, McCarthy headed the Republican Party's swaggering Young Guns program, which spotlights otherwise obscure GOP challengers in congressional races.

McCarthy was essential in turning energy into a potent campaign issue for the party. Last year, he convened HEAT, bringing together rank-and-file Republicans for regular meetings on energy talking points. HEAT was on the case when gasoline prices spiked and Obama delayed approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, turning it into a lightning rod.

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Coral Davenport is an energy and environment correspondent for National Journal.

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