Ben CardinSen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), defender of the EPA.Photo: Edward KimmelThe EPA is under full-scale assault. Republicans are working furiously to defund the agency and block or weaken its upcoming regulations on greenhouse gases, toxic hazardous emissions, sulfur dioxide, coal ash, and mountaintop-removal mining. (For more on those rules, see my series “Power Struggle.”) And they are getting help from midwestern Democrats in both houses.

In the face of this coordinated offensive, pushback from the left has been … fitful. Environmental groups are fired up, but enviros don’t have that many friends (or, alternatively, legislators who are scared of them) in Congress. If those legislators are the only ones who vote to protect EPA, the agency is in serious trouble. If the integrity of the nation’s landmark public health laws is to be protected, the rest of the left coalition will have to rally behind them. It won’t be easy to focus attention during a time of economic hardship and multiple concurrent attacks from the right, but there is no other way.

This Saturday, at Netroots Nation in Minneapolis, Minn., I’ll be on a panel (“Progressives vs Polluters: Standing up for the EPA“) that will attempt to remind progressives that the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act are not just “environmental,” they are also about social and economic justice, the left’s core values. I’ll be joined on the panel by two progressive heroes: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green for All. (The panel will be moderated by NWF’s Miles Grant.) Drop by if you’ll be at the conference; if you’re coming, let us know on this Facebook page.

I asked Sen. Cardin how he has perceived the left’s support for EPA so far, and he said that’s it’s been somewhat slow on the draw. “Once the Republicans passed their FY ’11 budget with all those environmental riders on it, and it became clear we were going to have votes, we started doing a nose count,” he says. “We saw that we only had 30, 35 reliable votes to protect the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.” They shared that alarming fact with environmental groups and there was an all-out effort for a while, culminating in a “victory” in which a bill to strip EPA of its authority over CO2 “only” got 50 votes. (Because of the filibuster, it would need 60 to pass.)

But now, says Cardin, activist energy has died down again, whereas “I can tell you in Washington there are a lot of activities going on that could jeopardize [those laws].”

Cardin has formed a working group in the Senate on clean water issues and says they’ve adopted a “NATO strategy,” that is, “an attack on any part of clean water will get us all engaged.” He recommends a similar approach to EPA by left activists. “Don’t just sit back and say, ‘give me a call if you need me,'” he says. “Get organized. Develop a political network. Let legislators know you’re watching and are prepared to actively engage the political system.”

I ask him, is any politician currently scared of voting the wrong way on EPA issues? Is there any adverse political consequence from doing so?

“That’s a good question,” he says, then pauses, as though contemplating what would be required to answer in the affirmative. “That’s a really good question.”