Business, Obama officials come calling as Rep. Fred Upton assumes Energy and Commerce post

Energy should be a political bloodbath. They did not learn from Tuscon, Arizona.

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 11:02 PM

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) set a colorful cylindrical box on his office coffee table.

In the box was a game, Jenga, in which players remove wooden blocks one by one from a tower and place them on top. The structure grows taller and less stable – until it collapses.

Upton is going to play Jenga with Obama’s health-care law.

“It’s like this game,” he said. “We’re going to pull out the pieces.”

As the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton will have his hands on myriad pieces of business-focused and politically loaded legislation, involving not only health care but also energy and telecommunications.

A 24-year veteran of the House, the affable Upton has often worked with Democrats – too often, according to conservative Republicans who vehemently opposed his elevation to the chairmanship.

But his current views on business issues place him solidly in line with the agenda of House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and the Republican leadership. He wants to undo “Obamacare,” rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and halt the administration’s efforts to guarantee “net neutrality,” which would prohibit telecommunication giants from giving preferential treatment to certain Web traffic.

On Thursday – Day One of his tenure as chairman – he urged the Rules Committee to quickly bring to the House floor a measure titled “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”

“We must repeal this job-killing health law that raids the pocketbooks of working Americans,” he said, “and sends their hard-earned tax dollars to Washington to create jobs for bureaucrats who decide what health care the public can have.”

In his office later that day, he conceded that although the measure to scrap the entire health-care law would pass the House, it would ultimately fail. That’s where Jenga comes in. He plans to bring individual pieces of the law to votes, hoping to garner enough Democratic support to repeal each item and undercut the whole package.

“We’ll see how that falls, or plays,” Upton said.

Businesses and trade associations have cozied up to Upton. Even when his victory was assured in the final days before the midterm election, the donations to his campaign poured in.

Four days before the vote, his campaign received $5,000 from Valero, the nation’s largest oil refiner; $3,000 each from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the Medtronic Medical Technology Fund; $2,500 each from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, power generator Calpine and the energy utility Exelon; and $2,000 from Microsoft. Other groups – such as the American Wind Energy Association – sent money on Election Day.

Upton also meets with executives. For instance, when he saw AT&T chief executive Randall L. Stephenson, he asked about paperwork burdens created by the health-care law.

“I met with the president of Toshiba,” said Upton, a nuclear power enthusiast, “and in Japan or France, it takes four to six years to build a nuclear plant. Why does it take us 10 to 12 years?” He added, “I don’t know, but we sure are going to find out.”

Business groups are upbeat. “I think our interests and his and the Republican conference’s align, especially on EPA stuff,” said an oil industry lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Republican stronghold

Upton, 57, comes from southwest Michigan, so close to Chicago that he roots for the Cubs and Bears. This year, because of the congressional schedule, he expects to miss Opening Day at Wrigley Field for the first time in 20 years. Mounted on his office wall, he has a baseball bat used by Sammy Sosa – one without any cork inside, Upton notes.

His grandfather co-founded Whirlpool (then known as Upton Machine Co.), and Upton is wealthier than most members of Congress, with at least $8 million in assets, according to a 2009 disclosure statement.

The district was long a Republican stronghold, from the founding of the party in the 19th century, and its congressmen have included New Deal foe Clare Hoffman and Nixon defender Edward Hutchison. Its main towns are Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor-St. Joseph, which is still home to Whirlpool.

In the 1970s, Upton volunteered to work for the congressional campaign of David Stockman, a critic of pork-barrel spending who later became President Ronald Reagan’s budget director. When Stockman won the Michigan seat, he brought Upton, a University of Michigan graduate who had never been to Washington, along as a legislative aide. When Stockman went to the Office of Management and Budget, Upton followed and worked in the legislative affairs office.

Kenneth Duberstein, a former Reagan chief of staff whose son works for Upton, called him “earnest, Midwest-straight, indefatigable” and said Upton “liked dealing with substance.”

In 1986, Upton ran for Congress himself, opposing the Republican incumbent, Mark D. Siljander, who had been elected with the help of the Moral Majority and who asked voters to support him in the primary in order to “break the back of Satan.” Upton won.

Since then, he has built a voting record that shows streaks of independence.

Kathryn Lehman, a lawyer at Holland & Knight who worked as policy director for then-GOP whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), said Upton always “took some talking to. You had to have a conversation with him. . . . You couldn’t take him for granted.”

Upton said that “as a former staffer, I want to know what legislation does.”

In 2001, he opposed a prohibition on U.S. funds going to foreign family planning groups that provide abortions and, in 2007, he was one of only 37 House Republicans who backed a bill promoting stem cell research. Still, NARAL labels him anti-choice, and he voted for the amendment barring insurance exchanges from covering abortions.

“Fred is philosophically conservative, but he has never been a social-issue conservative,” said David Hoppe, president of Quinn Gillespie and chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

He has supported the Endangered Species Act and opposed oil drilling in the Great Lakes and off the Florida coast. He was one of the founders of the moderate Tuesday Group, although GOP moderates found him an unreliable ally.

“I would like him to be a little more green,” said Sherry Boehlert, a former New York congressman.

Upton has also bucked the party on economic issues by twice supporting the Troubled Assets Relief Program. In 2009, he was one of 40 GOP House members to support increased spending on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In 2007, he backed a minimum-wage increase.

On the Energy and Commerce Committee, he was one of 30 Republicans in 2008 to back a measure that created tax credits for renewable energy. And in 2007, he co-authored a measure with Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) to set lighting standards that will effectively outlaw the incandescent bulb invented by Thomas Edison.

‘Down with Upton’

With that voting record, Upton wasn’t everyone’s first choice to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee in the new Republican House.

Television commentator Glenn Beck, who described Upton as “all socialist,” said, “This is exactly the kind of guy that the Republicans need to avoid, or they’ll destroy themselves.” Former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey’s group, Freedom Works, has waged a campaign called “Down with Upton.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said an Upton chairmanship “would be a tone-deaf disaster.” Citing the light bulb standards, he said Upton represented “exactly the kind of nannyism, statism, what have you, that was voted against and was defeated” in the midterm elections.

Upton also came under attack from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), a committee member who sought a second stint as chairman and waged a nasty campaign against Upton.

Upton, who insists on being called Fred, prevailed. On Thursday, Barton paid a visit to Upton’s office. Asked afterward whether Barton calls him Fred, Upton said, “We’re back to that.”

Upton survived the onslaught in part by running to the right, in tones unusually strident for a lawmaker widely described as “nice.” In recent weeks, his office has issued a steady stream of broadsides against Obama policies.

In December, he co-authored an article in the Wall Street Journal with Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by ultra-conservative tea party supporter and oil tycoon David Koch. Although the Supreme Court in April 2007 ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act, Upton and Phillips called the agency’s steps “an unconstitutional power grab.” The position appeals to big oil refiners and utilities seeking to expand coal-fired power plants.

He also attacked the Federal Communications Commission’s plan for net neutrality, which FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski says would protect equal access to the Web. It would place restrictions on Internet service providers: cable companies such as Comcast and phone companies such as Verizon and AT&T.

Upton said Congress must “use every resource available . . . to strike down the FCC’s brazen effort to regulate the Internet.”

“Net neutrality is going to our number one issue,” he said last week. He said that Democrats who supported net neutrality paid for it in the November election. “Ninety five Democrats ran in support of net neutrality,” he said. “Do you know how many won reelection? Zero.”

Upton quoted columnist George Will as saying “that Americans believe government doesn’t work and that the Internet does.”

Upton also held forth on Obama’s health-care policies. “The administration really blew it,” he said, as he lifted a printout of the voluminous law. After moving a visitor’s cup of coffee out of the way, he dropped it with a bang on the coffee table.

“When the president said if you like your health-care plan you can keep it, he was just flat-out wrong,” Upton said. “Look at page 737. I read it.”

Upton has even said he would reconsider the light bulb regulations, which Barton has proposed reversing. “We’ll reexamine it. That’s not a problem,” he said, though he cited savings of $16 billion a year in energy costs.

About Upton’s recent spate of attacks on the administration, Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani, said, “Don’t mistake thoughtfulness for not being aggressive.”

But a GOP health-care expert sees Upton’s recent tone as strategic posturing. “For many years, Fred was a moderate on health care and always pretty constructive,” said the expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Now he is 100 percent for repeal, as all Republicans are. If he wasn’t for repeal, he wouldn’t be chairman of the committee.”

A new courtship

The changing of the guard involves more than the committee chairmanship. Upton has reorganized the committee, dividing energy and environment into two subcommittees. Hoppe said that division will help Republicans push for the expansion of domestic energy while keeping environmental issues separate.

Upton has hired Gary Andres, a veteran GOP operative and one of the Hill newspaper’s two “lobbyists of the year” in 2007. He has represented pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, Sprint Nextel and other firms. Upton said, though, that he still plans to reach out to Democrats. And with a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House, cooperation might be the only way he gets anything done.

“I’ve long had the reputation of reaching out to the other side to find common ground to get things done,” Upton said. “I didn’t come to Congress to work on things that would never happen.”

He cited an alliance forged with then-Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) to amend the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, to provide a tax credit for small businesses struggling to comply.

Upton may also be compelled to cooperate because of the changing nature of his district, which is no longer the bastion of conservatism it once was. It voted twice for President Clinton, twice for the outgoing Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and for Obama two years ago.

“Being from the northeast or Midwest is different from being from Sugar Land, Texas,” Upton said, referring to DeLay.

The Obama administration isn’t waiting for Upton to reach out. It’s reaching out to him.

On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson called. Upton and Genakowski have traded phone messages. Energy Secretary Steven Chu stopped by for a long conversation. White House energy and environment czar Carol Browner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius have all phoned.

This isn’t the first time the Obama team has courted Upton. Two years ago, it wooed Upton, trying to peel him away from other Republicans. Upton attended the White House Super Bowl party in 2009 with his 17-year-old son, Stephen, and traveled with Obama on Air Force One to Elkhart, Ind. But then he didn’t support the stimulus anyway.

Now, instead of embracing him in the hope of winning his support its agenda, the Obama team is essentially begging him not to tear its agenda apart.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said he and Upton had cooperated in the past on legislation about online privacy for children, medical isotopes and the security of the electricity grid. He said he hopes they can still pursue ways to promote use of electric vehicles and energy efficiency.

But some gaps may be too great. “I do not support any legislative rollback of EPA authority,” Markey said. “I think that’s the big one.”

Markey added, “He is a Republican and proud to be so.”

As the veteran GOP health-care expert put it: “Is he a bomb-throwing conservative? No, thank God. But he’s a very loyal team guy.”

‘I got to go’

Upton is also unassuming.

“If he is not the nicest member of Congress, he’s in the top five,” one lobbyist said. His office has photos of Stockman and Reagan, signing ceremonies with Bush, his son the lacrosse standout at Williams College, and his dog Juno, who died two years ago. There’s a Wolverine helmet, too, and a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes box with a photo of him next to the words “They’re Grrreat!”

Lehman said she mistook the boyish-looking Upton for a staffer when she first met him in 1990. “A bell rang for a vote. And this guy with a rumpled khaki suit who looks like he might be 30 says, ‘I got to go.’ And I wondered, who did this guy think he is?”

He is given to quirky phrases. Pledging to stay on top of an issue, he once said he would be “like a dog on a Frisbee.”

He said he goes home nearly every weekend. He said he reads and personally signs all his legislative mail. “I have signed ‘Fred’ more than a million times,” he boasted.

But nice won’t matter to the companies with billions of dollars at stake on committee votes or to the Republican leadership seeking to make its mark, or to the Obama White House searching for common ground.

“Fred has always had designs on having more responsibility,” Boehlert said. “Now the question is how will he handle those responsibilities.”


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