Memo to Congress: Don’t dawdle on climate bill
Even though the Senate hasn’t even begun debating a specific climate bill, naysayers at home and abroad are already declaring as dead on arrival the effort to pass climate and energy legislation in the United States this year.
And who can blame them? Like health-care reform — and bad teenage slasher movies — the whole climate and energy debate seems to be moving very slowly down a well-trodden path toward a bloody ending.
Slasher flicks? See, big political debates in Congress, like your typical horror movie, teach us that those who linger when being pursued, whether by Republican senators or knife-wielding madmen, are targeted and picked off one by one.
Health-care reform started to stumble mid-summer as it became apparent that the House and Senate leaderships weren’t on the same page … and that nobody was listening to President Obama. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) started acknowledging that a big breakthrough was needed, the White House did its best to pretend nothing was awry. The result: The few GOP moderates in the Senate (and a good number of centrist Democrats) were chased away from embracing any health plan.
The climate and energy debate may have gotten off to a stronger start, with a bill passing in the House in June after a tough fight. But then … it got put on the backburner. The House struggle didn’t thrill liberals or conservatives, and it left those in the middle uneasy. The result this month was Reid once again talking down the need to rush the climate issue, forcing President Obama to assure increasingly skeptical foreign partners that the U.S. Senate was capable of getting something done.
Maybe something will get done — Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, has promised a draft of a climate bill by Sept. 30, for real this time. But Boxer’s draft will be just the beginning. A Senate bill will be dragged through four more committees that can claim some form of jurisdiction. Each committee is its own collection of wandering interests that need to be corralled. Whether that happens may depend on how capable, or interested, each committee chair is, increasing the chances that the bill will get caught in the crossfire of a senatorial turf war.
Boxer has a long history of strong support for environmental issues, and she’s at least nominally leading the charge with the release of her draft. She’ll have the support of another reliably liberal senator, John Kerry (D-Mass.), who will co-write her draft as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. But Boxer won’t be able to route the bill around Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — the next most senior member of the EPW Committee and the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, who apparently wants the naming rights.
Followers of health-care reform will recall that Baucus styled himself a bipartisan broker, convening meetings of the “Gang of Six” — moderate Finance Committee members from both sides of the aisle. Baucus also believes his committee should take the lead on discussions of how to finance cap-and-trade. His ability to wrest that control out of Boxer’s hands was based on the premise that pulling together a bipartisan health-care reform bill would boost his stock across the board. That didn’t happen.
If the senatorial turf war can be avoided — or settled relatively bloodlessly — Baucus will still be expected to wrangle a group of diverse and moderate Democrats on his own committee. Baucus himself is known as a moderate. His home state has huge coal reserves, and he’s hardly proven himself a reliable backer of environmental interests, much less a reliable Democrat. The common view is that having to cater to a group of moderate Democrats who aren’t firmly on board will force Baucus to craft a weak climate and energy bill. But will even a watered-down bill find centrist champions?
The climate and energy bill isn’t health-care reform. Almost all Democrats, and even some Republicans, want to talk about health care. On the climate and energy front, however, there is nothing resembling that kind of common ground. In fact, members of Baucus’ own committee — Democrats! — are openly taking shots at the legislation.
Support for health-care reform isn’t limited by geography — the uninsured and underinsured are found all over the country. Climate and energy hinges on much more regional concerns over the potential loss of manufacturing jobs and economic ties to coal and oil — emotional and touchy subjects for some of the members of Baucus’ committee.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) recently questioned whether combining climate and energy would be “too big of a lift” and told reporters that she saw “the cap-and-trade being a real problem.” Lincoln has praised a standalone energy bill drafted earlier this year as potentially “a great vehicle and bridge to get us where we need to be.” As the chair of the Agriculture Committee (where there will likely be interest in lowering the profile of wind and boosting ethanol’s part in the energy equation), Lincoln could do as much to weaken the bill as Baucus and his fellow Finance Committee moderates.
Three other moderate Democrats on Finance — Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad (both of North Dakota) — have openly questioned cap-and-trade as well. If you consider the reservations that prominent coal-state Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) might bring to the table, Baucus’ panel begins to look like a tough crowd. If Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow (D) wavers under pressure from industry and labor groups worried about cap-and-trade costing more manufacturing jobs, six of 13 Finance Committee Democrats are gone.
Of course, compromise will be essential to getting any bill through the Senate. But if Baucus steers a climate and energy bill too far to the center, it raises the specter of a revolt from the left — just like talk of dropping the public option did in the health-care debate. What becomes of Baucus’ health-care work remains to be seen, but his efforts so far have infuriated certain factions on the left end of the spectrum, which may affect their willingness to indulge a more moderate, Baucus-backed climate and energy bill.
In the meantime, supporters of a climate bill are wasting time, turning the advantage increasingly to the corporate and political interests opposed to capping carbon emissions. With so many moderate Democrats sitting on the important committees, opponents know they can kill a robust climate bill by picking off just a few senators from the majority party. The coalition of carbon interests that is spending tens of millions lobbying Congress may well turn the old slasher-flick ending on its head — in other words, a few surviving heroes won’t ultimately vanquish the knife-wielding killer; it will be the killer who prevails.