The Kerry-Lieberman (nee Kerry-Graham-Lieberman) climate and clean-energy bill is set to be introduced on Wednesday. Given all the chaos that’s surrounded it for the last few weeks, it’s worth taking a step back and taking a broad look at the current political dynamic and the chances for a successful outcome. Here’s the one-sentence summary: Chances for passage are quite slim, but not as slim as generally perceived, and ironically, the path to passage now involves the bill getting stronger, not weaker. Read on.
Will it pass?
This is what everyone keeps asking me. (And everyone keeps asking everyone else.) The smart money, of course, is on No. Generally, predicting the death of major legislation is a smart move when it comes to the U.S. Senate. And after Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) bailing and the oil spill, lots and lots of folks are completely convinced that the coalition’s fallen apart and the bill’s dead.
I don’t necessarily disagree that the odds are against passage. But I don’t think the chances are as bad as conventional wisdom now has it — i.e., I don’t think they’re zero. (Wo0t optimism!) Put another way: I think the chances are roughly as good as they’ve ever been in the Senate: low but non-trivial.
All of D.C. is currently engaged in the seemingly intractable project of psychoanalyzing Graham. What’s he thinking? What does he want? Is he in or out?
The short answer is, nobody knows for certain. Graham’s exit from the process was probably overdetermined. He was taking tons of heat from his party; his buddy John McCain (R-Ariz.) needed cover on immigration; he didn’t think Obama was going to do what’s necessary to push the bill; as a supporter of offshore oil drilling, he thought the BP Gulf oil disaster destroyed his Republican Attractor Beam and scuttled the bill’s chances. There’s also what people in congressional offices delicately refer to his “personal problem” back home in South Carolina, about which the less said the better.
Long story short, he’s not coming back as a sponsor or champion of the bill. However, most people I’ve talked to think he’ll vote for it if it comes to the floor.
Is there another Republican who will step forward as the public face of the bill, a champion who will stump for, and possibly lure, other Republican votes? Uh … no. There are, however, some Republicans who are expected to vote for the bill if it goes to the floor: Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) (unless she totally digs in her heels on her pony bill), Scott Brown (Mass.), and George Lemieux (Fla.) are the top tier, with a few longer shots like Dick Lugar (Ind.) and George Voinovich (Ohio).
Oil spill WTF
The BP Gulf oil disaster has completely scrambled the politics of this stuff. The White House is terrified — scared they’ll be stuck with responsibility; scared their response will be seen as inadequate; and scared (believe it or not) that they’ll be seen as overreacting, shutting down all drilling and raising gas prices. No one in Congress is quite sure where public opinion will come out. And of course the spill isn’t over yet — it could get much worse!
One certain effect is that coastal-state drilling opponents, who might have had a little wiggle room to compromise before, now have none. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) absolutely will not vote for a bill with drilling.
The smart thing would be for the bill to simply be silent on the issue — to offload it entirely to a separate floor fight. The revenue-sharing issue was already set to screw the whole process up anyway. Some enviros are pushing for this option, but I’m told the administration is insistent that a comprehensive bill include new safety restrictions and a boost to the liability cap.
Who would be lost if new drilling were delayed or dropped from the bill? Mary Landrieu (D-La.) would certainly bail. (“The environmentalists are wrong, actually,” she says. “We can drill safely off the shores of America.” Who you gonna believe, her or your lying eyes?) Mark Begich (D-Alaska) might, but he’s known as a pretty thoughtful guy on this stuff, so he could probably be persuaded to stay. Maaaybe Graham would bail too, though I personally doubt it. But who else? Despite Graham’s boasts, there really aren’t all that many votes that stand or fall on drilling. Even Virginia’s pro-drilling Mark Warner (D) and Jim Webb (D) agree it should be delayed for now.
It may be that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the oil spill could be a net positive for the bill. From what I can tell, the other possible R votes become more likely, not less, if drilling falls out. Which brings us to …
Help me, Obi Wan Obama, you’re my only hope
There is still a narrow (and, yes, improbable) path to passage. Here’s how it goes: Kerry and Lieberman introduce their bill on Wednesday, looking roughly like it looks now, with drilling provisions intact like Lieberman wants. It fizzles, lost amidst Elena Kagan, tornadoes, and Gordon Brown. After a couple weeks, buoyed by public opinion that is clearly turning against drilling and in favor of clean energy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) takes control of the process, strips drilling out, boosts the energy-efficiency and renewable-energy provisions, and gives the bill a big, public push.
For this to happen requires two things, which also require each other. First, public opinion has to keep moving and getting louder. There has to be a sense of urgency behind passing a bill. That’s always been the missing ingredient. The forces in the Senate pushing for clean energy have had, up to this point, essentially no cards in their hand. Now they have one, and it might, just might, be possible to put opponents of clean energy on the defensive. Make Republicans explain why they don’t favor energy independence.
But for public opinion to crystallize and become a serious force, it must be echoed, amplified, and directed by the only politician most Americans still trust: Barack Obama. I’ve said this before and it remains true: The only way this thing gets done is if Obama lays himself on the line for it. (It would also help, incidentally, if the left pushed to mobilize the public behind a bill, though at this point the left seems content just bitching and moaning about it, as they’ve done throughout the entire process.)
Reid will have his finger to the wind. If he doesn’t feel a gale of public anger, he’ll likely end up pushing an energy-only bill based on the craptastic Energy Committee bill. (That would be better than nothing, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The chances of a serious climate bill push from the top are slim, and most raw political considerations weigh heavily against it, but Obama and Reid must know that if the bill doesn’t happen this year, it won’t happen for a long, long time. The Dems look set to take a shellacking in the 2010 midterms and the Republicans don’t appear likely to become less venal and backwards on clean energy any time soon. It could be a decade before Dems build up a majority this large again.
Obama once said, “Combating global warming will be a top priority of my presidency, and I will attend to it personally.” Now we’ll find out whether he intends to keep that promise.