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GOP wields report on Solyndra as cudgel against Obama

 

Republicans have latched onto a new report about the defunct solar panel maker Solyndra, in an attempt to ding the Obama White House for embarking on a fool's errand with its green energy initiatives and engaging in cronyism when one of its biggest investments took a turn for the worse.

Solyndra has been on the tongues of conservatives -- including Mitt Romney, who staged a surprise press conference out of the company's former headquaters in May -- for months. And they feel that a new report released this week by Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee only strengthens their case against the incumbent administration.

Republicans' central narrative is this: the White House anxiously approved $535 million in loan guarantees for Solyndra -- a company with a principal investor who was a major fundraiser for President Barack Obama -- as part of its green energy program. And, the GOP contends, when Solyndra started to struggle, the Department of Energy restructured its loans despite misgivings from the Office of Management and Budget.

In a series of emails obtained and published by the committee and written during the initial approval process for the loans, one OMB staff member writes of the pressure to finish its review of the Solyndra loan.

"It's based on pressure from the VP's office," another OMB staffer wrote in response. "[The Department of Energy] would like to schedule the closing for tomorrow, and [Energy Secretary Steven] Chu will be in CA and [Vice President Biden] by video link for Friday announcement."

A Democratic report issued Thursday by the minority staff of the Energy and Commerce Committee acknowledged that the White House was certainly interested in an "expeditious decision" on the loans -- but mostly because Solyndra was the first major loan guarantee of the program.

But, Democrats contend, there is no evidence that this pressure influenced the ultimate decision to offer Solyndra a guarantee. Moreover, Democrats said in their dissenting report that White House officials told investigators that they weren't aware of any involvement in Solyndra by political fundraisers until it was first raised by Republicans.

The White House said Thursday, too, that the Republican-led inquiry was about little more than politics.

"I did see these reports, and what it points out is, yet again, proof positive that none of the accusations that the Republicans have made about this particular loan have turned out to be true -- that this was a merit-based decision," White House press secretary said in a gaggle Thursday aboard Air Force One. "What we knew then we still know, and this is a 18-month, costly investigation that only highlights the fact that Congress is not doing what it should do to help the American people."

The Republican report produced no hard evidence of malfeasance in the Obama administration's management of Solyndra, but the mere appearance of impropriety has fed into a narrative about transparency and waste that the GOP has sought to advance.

"When President Obama claimed government helped build businesses, he must have been thinking about his failed attempt to prop up Solyndra," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Friday in an email to reporters. "But after half a billion in wasted taxpayer dollars and nearly 2,000 unemployed workers, it’s clear the only people who lost on President Obama’s Solyndra gamble were American taxpayers."

In particular, Republicans have highlighted a portion of the emails contained within the same GOP report detailing the cost to taxpayers if the government restructured Solyndra's loans, or rather, let the company liquidate.

An energy official wrote in early January of 2011 that the expected loss under liquidation would be $141 million versus an expected loss of $385 million under a loan restructuring.

Democrats argue, though, that the Solyndra loan wasn't imprudent in the way Republicans would make it seem, and that the process to restructure the loan was the process of usual internal administration deliberation. Besides, Democrats contend, Solyndra might not have had to file for bankruptcy if it weren't for a sudden influx onto the market of cheaper Chinese alternatives.

But Republicans aren't likely to let go of Solyndra as an issue during this campaign. The June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans who were familiar with the company had a negative impression of it. Two percent of respondents in the June poll said they had a positive impression of Solyndra, versus 24 percent who said they had a negative opinion of the failed company. But 59 percent of respondents said in mid-June that they were unfamiliar with the company.

GOP officials also said that Solyndra tests particularly well in data they’ve collected, especially as individuals are exposed to more information about its difficulties and the government's support for the company.

The bet is that if Obama and Solyndra are tethered together in voters' minds, it will benefit Romney come election day.

"Let’s look at the results. Today, Staples employs roughly 90,000 people," the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said Friday in Nevada, referencing the office supplies company that Bain Capital helped support during his time in charge.

"And Solyndra, I think you know how many people it employs," Romney added.