Despite passage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this year’s effort to pass climate change legislation could easily succumb to the same kind of partisan political games and failed leadership that killed the Lieberman-Warner bill last year.

Much of the blame for this troubling prospect rests with Republican leaders who chose to politicize the effort right out of the gate with “cap-and-tax” demagoguery rather than work constructively to tackle the climate change problem.

The tactic has succeeded in creating a politically charged atmosphere that exploits nervousness about the economy and undermines political will—not exactly the best environment for crafting bold, forward-thinking public policy.

The Republicans who are responsible for this, which include House Minority Leader John Boehner (OH-8) and ranking Energy and Commerce Committee member Joe Barton (TX-6), are abdicating their conservative duty to be responsible stewards. They are also doing a great disservice to their more thoughtful GOP colleagues and the party in general.

Barton’s failed leadership was on display during this week’s committee mark-up of the Waxman-Markey bill. He and his allies worked to obstruct progress with a long list of nonsensical amendments.

It is not obvious in the press, but there are actually quite a few Republicans in Congress who take climate change seriously, and whose input could help produce a balanced climate bill that is capable of garnering more bipartisan support.

Conservative Republican Representatives Bob Inglis (SC-4) and Jeff Flake (AZ-6) have introduced a well-designed carbon tax bill. Senator Bob Corker (TN) is pushing a cap-and-dividend approach with a 100 percent auction of emission allowances.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (CA-45), the lone Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee to vote in favor of the bill on Thursday, recently joined Mike Castle (DE), Vernon Ehlers (MI-3), Mark Kirk (IL-10), and John McHugh (NY-23) to outline a set of climate principles and encouraged House leaders to find common ground on the issue.

Unfortunately, these thoughtful, stewardship-minded Republicans and others like them are being hamstrung on one side by GOP leaders who are intent on poisoning the debate, and on the other, by Democrats who have been reluctant to give them a seat at the negotiating table.

President Richard Nixon, who elevated political hardball to a dark art, was shrewd enough to know that he could score more political points by helping solve the nation’s complex environmental woes than by playing politics with the issue or defending the status quo. He wisely pointed out:

Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act …

Efforts to address Nixon-era environmental problems did in fact rise beyond partisan politics. Landmark environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Republican leaders should take this page from Nixon’s playbook. They should rally behind those Republicans who are willing to work constructively to craft balanced climate legislation, allow them to be part of the solution, and in doing so, keep the party safely on the right side of history.

Democrat leaders would do well also to set aside partisanship and diligently work to garner Republican input and support. That means negotiating with climate-conscious Republicans the same way they did with moderate members of their own party.

It also means resisting the temptation to muddy the waters by dedicating revenue raised from climate legislation — if there is any — to unrelated efforts such as paying for the President’s universal health care plan.

Slowing and reversing climate change will require consistent progress over many decades. That is why we can ill afford to have that progress held hostage to ever shifting political winds. Climate legislation needs the same kind of bipartisan buy-in that has helped other landmark environmental laws withstand the test of time.

With so much at stake and so much time wasted, Republicans and Democrats need to rise above partisanship and finally recognize that protecting our life-sustaining atmosphere is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.