WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns lost his bid to become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, fate seemed to pull him back into the ranks of the obscure, a figure unrecognizable outside a Florida district whose power players tend to be thoroughbred horses.
But there was President Barack Obama on Thursday taking a direct shot at the Ocala Republican during a nationally televised news conference, escalating tension stemming from the lawmaker's lead investigative role into the failed solar company Solyndra.
Sterns' consolation prize last year — chair of the House oversight and investigations subcommittee — has inserted him into the biggest scandal to touch the Obama administration.
On Friday, the official overseeing the program that awarded a $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra resigned. And e-mails uncovered by the investigation show that a senior Energy Department official, who was a 2008 Obama fundraiser, was more active in the loan than administration officials have acknowledged.
Drip by drip, the situation grows worse for Obama, and Stearns has his hand on the spout.
"It's sobering," Stearns, 70, said in an interview from his office Thursday. He had four others lined up and has been a regular on cable news since the controversy accelerated last month.
"It's sobering," he went on, "because it's a lot of money that's being lost and these loan guarantees are not just Solyndra. There are lots of others out there. The responsibility is to show the taxpayer money is being used wisely and we're starting to find that it's not."
A lanky former high school basketball star with a soft voice and patrician air (he bears a resemblance to author Tom Wolfe), Stearns seems hardly the type to be provoking outrage or demanding accountability from the highest reaches of government.
He was raised in Washington, D.C., served in the Air Force and then was drawn to Florida in the 1970s when he saw opportunity in a Howard Johnson motel. First elected in 1988, he has assembled a solid conservative record. Stearns long pursued an effort to have the Ten Commandments prominently displayed in the Capitol. In 2005, he succeeded in getting a bill enacted that gave immunity to firearms makers when their weapons are used in crimes.
By and large, though, he has not distinguished himself. Friends say his low-key demeanor is an asset in his new role.
"He doesn't want to burn the place down, but he does want to illuminate the problems," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., a member of the subcommittee. "He has proceeded without making assumptions or announcing conclusions, and as the facts are coming out, they have so much more weight and the process has so much more credibility."
Some Democrats decry the investigation as a political witch-hunt — and Republicans see an upside in undercutting Obama as he heads into a tough re-election battle — but watchdog groups say the case raises legitimate questions.
"The political opposition will try to make hay out of anything it can, but the public deserves to know if there's fire as well as smoke in this situation," said Michael Beckel, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.
Among the revelations in the investigation are multiple warnings from government officials against giving Solyndra the loan because the company's health was shaky. Even so, the White House pressed for a speedy review. The company, which faced a highly competitive environment, went bankrupt and was raided by the FBI for possible fraud.
Stearns has faced resistance and had to subpoena documents. When Solyndra executives showed up for a hearing in late September, they took the Fifth Amendment.
Obama has defended the energy loan program, which was created with bipartisan support and funded with stimulus money, saying that the technology industry carries inherent, but worthy risks. Most loan recipients have succeeded, he said.
During his news conference Thursday, Obama tried to seize on comments Stearns made to National Public Radio that the United States could not compete with China on solar panels.
"Well, you know what? I don't buy that," Obama said. "I'm not going to surrender to other countries' technological leads that could end up determining whether or not we're building a strong middle class in this country."
A few hours later, Stearns stood outside the House chamber, surrounded by reporters. He stepped up the pressure, saying his request for all White House communications on Solyndra extended to Obama's BlackBerry.
Stearns says the United States should provide incentives for companies to exploit technological advantages, but not subsidize industries, such as solar, when China can use cheap labor, easy access to raw materials and little regulation to win the price war.
"We should not be picking winners and losers, which is a fundamental flaw in his stimulus scheme," Stearns said after Obama's news conference.
But Stearns has also supported so-called green energy projects. A Jacksonville company that makes lithium batteries received a $95 million stimulus grant.
"If a company comes into my district and creates jobs, I support it," he said, stressing he played no role in the grant.
As he continues to push against Obama, Stearns can expect more scrutiny. After more than 20 years in office, he has a lengthy record to exploit.
"I don't feel tense about it," Stearns said of his new spotlight. "I just feel like I'm trying to do the right thing. That's all I'm trying to do."
He does expect some fallout. "It's like my wife said, we probably won't get an invitation to the (White House) Christmas party."