When it comes to the debate over climate and energy legislation, there are those in Congress and business for whom any bill will always be too much, and there are lawmakers and environmental groups for whom no bill will ever be tough enough. In between the two extremes, there are the middle paths, variously labeled as “centrist,” “moderate,” or “compromise” alternatives. Some of these are more viable than others, some are well-defined proposals, and some are just talking points being pushed by coalitions of like-minded senators who want a hand in shaping a final bill.

ice cream sundaeHow do you get 60 senators to agree on a single ice cream order?SeRVe61 via FlickrIn reality, most of them are just variations on the larger theme. Senators of all stripes are screaming for some kind of climate and energy bill, but like schoolkids at the ice cream parlor, each is crying out for a different flavor. But at this particularly unfair ice cream parlor, the kids all have to share the same helping, begging the question: Is there one flavor that can please at least 60 senators and get the backing of the House?

Handicapping the various approaches in the Senate isn’t easy. Honestly, no single proposal has a chance of winding up as the final favorite. It’s more likely the final climate and energy bill will be a mix of flavors, more sundae than ice cream cone.

The thing about ice-cream sundaes is that they’re rarely good when crafted by committee. Once the Senate is done ordering, will we wind up with a pleasing dessert or a sticky mess? It all depends on how strong your stomach is.

Coal Ice Cream

There’s a strong bloc of coal-state senators who have already made their feelings clear: They want giveaways for coal. There was a similar movement in the House, and as a result its Waxman-Markey bill ended up with a strong coal flavor. The problem with adding coal to the mix is that for a lot of other lawmakers, it ruins the climate bill. If a good, pure climate bill is a scoop of vanilla, the plan to include incentives for greenhouse gas–emitting utilities (and exceptions for coal mines) is the equivalent of adding a big dollop of coffee ice cream. It has a distinct flavor, and any amount of it tinges anything it melts into.

Unfortunately for coal haters, this flavor is likely to be dropped in the middle of our sundae … highly likely. It happened with Waxman-Markey, and for the predictable reasons (like the big coal lobby, inclusion of powerful coal-state Dems in the middle of the process, etc.) it’s going to happen again.

Cantwell & Jerry’s

A proposal from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) offers a different take on cap-and-trade. Written from the left of Kerry-Boxer and just 32-pages long, it’s a pint-sized piece of legislation [PDF] that turns the cap-and-trade equation on its head (it doesn’t bother with a complicated trading system — it starts at the top where the carbon enters the system and caps it there). Unlike Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer, both of which would give away substantial portions of any carbon credits, Cantwell’s proposal requires that 100 percent of the credits be purchased by the industries that need them, making it a proposal that only a true liberal could love.

Cantwell’s plan would push the flavor of the sundae away from coffee (er, coal) to something more natural tasting. But like a good Ben and Jerry’s flavor, as well intentioned as the folks behind it are, it’s going to be a niche flavor. There are some good arguments that it would make the cap-and-trade process smoother — limiting carbon by focusing on energy inputs, rather than emissions — and some of that may be reflected in the final bill. But it’s just not appealing to enough people to ever be the No. 1 brand.

Alexander’s Space Ice Cream

Most on the right side of the Senate would rather not see a climate and energy bill at all — many still won’t admit there’s either a climate problem or an energy problem that can’t be solved with coal. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), however, has been quite active in promoting a plan for expanding nuclear power. Not so long ago, it was thought Alexander might actually come to the table with some kind of serious proposal, but lately, he’s seemed more interested in taking the wind out of the clean-energy movement.

His proposal to build 100 nuclear plants in the next 20 years seems kind of grandiose (there are only 104 commercial nuclear plants operating in the country now, and not one has been brought online since 1996), bordering on disingenuous. Alexander’s “concern” about non-nuclear energy sources is how much space they take up — wind energy, for example, apparently leads to energy sprawl, and that poses a threat to his beloved Great Smoky Mountains (good thing all those upwind coal plants aren’t a threat …).

Yes, Alexander does have a point that nuclear energy is a low-carbon solution, but it’s hardly without environmental concerns. Between his sales pitch for nuclear as a space-saver and it’s kind-of-creepy, decidedly unnatural downsides, it’s only fitting that Alexander would be asking for a big scoop of that dehydrated horror — space ice cream. And as much as many environmentalists hate it, there will probably be some of the freeze-dried nuclear flavoring dumped on top of whatever climate and energy bill ekes into the law books. It won’t be the 100 nuclear plants that Alexander is calling for, though… for the same reasons we don’t make ice cream sundaes out of space ice cream — it’s too unnatural and too creepy for too many people.

Lieberman’s Neapolitan

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was the original cap-and-trade guy, back when he was a moderate with cred on both sides of the aisle. Rumor has it he’s back at it again, trying to tie together the coal-state Dems and the nuclear-loving moderate conservatives.

But Lieberman’s flavor is kind of like Neapolitan ice cream — OK in theory, but who wants something that isn’t really vanilla, isn’t really chocolate, and isn’t really strawberry? (Coincidentally, it apparently freeze-dries into space ice cream very well.) Maybe 30 years ago, the Senate was the kind of place where that “little bit for everyone in the same plastic tub” mentality prevailed, but today the upper house is a highly partisan place.

Kerry-Graham Parfait

What’s most likely to happen with Lieberman’s proposal is it will provide an opening for the nuclear folks to push for a strong nuclear title. In fact, it’s already happening — Senate Dems who want a deal on climate so badly are already doing just that. Lieberman has been instrumental in getting Kerry to sit down with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.), a Republican who says he doesn’t want to be the party of “angry white men” (and even suggested angry men should leave a town hall meeting if they didn’t like him paling around with Kerry).

Graham and Kerry’s joint proposal calls for expanded use of natural gas and nuclear, offshore drilling, and protections for U.S. industry faced with competing against less-carbon-concerned foreign competitors. But for every voice hailing the joint offering as an answer, there are two furious voices complaining. And let’s not forget, Graham isn’t endorsing the current draft legislation — in fact, he’s quite openly trying to replace the cap-and-trade that’s already been written (or to use his words at 1:29, “make sure it’s dead.”)

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A Sticky Mess?

The climate bill will change from what we first knew as the Kerry-Boxer bill. On Oct. 27, when hearings on the bill are scheduled to start, it may very literally be like standing in line at the ice cream parlor with 100 school kids — some screaming exuberantly, others having a temper tantrum, and more than a few crying because their scoop fell on the floor. The rest of us aren’t getting any ice cream until they’ve all been placated.

Oh, and by the way: After you convince your school-bus load of senators to dig into the compromise sundae, you’ve got to figure out how to get at least 218 House members on board too. A razor-thin majority of representatives ate at the same ice cream parlor earlier this year, and not many left with a good taste in their mouths.

There are some who are just desperate to get any climate bill at all — they may be willing to stomach whatever pile of melting ice cream is plopped in their bowl by these unruly kids. Of course, there are also those who have checked out and want no part of the process.

As the climate bill meanders its way through the Senate over the next month or so, all sides will need to stop hoping for a bill that meets every one of their criteria. Reaching a compromise, as the debate over health care reform is already showing, will come down to a key question: How much are the Democrats willing to give away in order to secure one or two votes from the other side of the aisle? Or, more simply: how badly do they really want ice cream?