Highlights from our chat with reporter Ryan Lizza on Senate climate politics
A big Grist thanks to reporter Ryan Lizza, author of the magisterial recent piece in The New Yorker on the death of the climate bill in the Senate, for stopping by to chat with us yesterday. The entire (two-hour!) transcript is still up, but here are a few highlights.
Lizza began with some keen wisdom and insight:
First of all, before we start, I want to thank David and Grist for their coverage of this issue. David’s blogging was an important source of wisdom for me while I was reporting and writing the piece, and frankly his writing on this issue has been smarter and better than any of the other commentary I’ve seen since the piece came out. So kudos to him and this site for their work.
Having repaid the $20 I slipped him before the chat, Lizza went on to point out one of the key (but underappreciated) facets of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill effort in the Senate:
One of the reasons KGL was really handicapped was because they were working outside the committee process. Their team was literally composed of three senators and three staffers, whereas a proper committee has dozens of staffers to work out thorny issues. HCR would not have passed this way.
The reason KGL moved outside the committee process is another underappreciated facet of the story:
The committee that has jurisdiction over this — EPW — is completely dysfunctional. Boxer, the Dem who heads that committee, failed to produce a viable piece of legislation. So Kerry, to his credit, joined up with Graham, and then Lieberman to give C&T another shot after Boxer flamed out.
I’ve begun to think that Boxer is used as a scapegoat a little to easily by the Moderate Boy’s Club in the Senate, in part because her office doesn’t handle the media well, but that’s a topic for another time.
Lots of readers asked about Lindsey Graham’s real motivations. Does he believe climate change is a danger or was he just trying to secure some concessions and bail?
His aides will say he doesn’t really care about climate change and it’s all about oil and nukes for him. But as I tried to document in the piece, I think he had his polar bear moment late last year where he became a believer.
I do think that the political pressure on him was extraordinary. Frankly — if only for a few months! — he was the only Republican in Washington willing to publicly work on this issue, and he deserves credit for that. After the gas tax attack he seemed to be looking for the exits, and the White House and Reid gave him reasonable excuses to bail. I will say that I found no evidence before the Fox News leak that Graham was looking for a way out. Also: he and Kerry did not have a great working relationship, and I’m sure that contributed to his decision.
That leak to Fox News, in which a source in the White House effectively accused Graham of supporting gas tax, was truly inexplicable. “A case can be made,” says Lizza, “that it killed cap-and-trade for 2010. Perhaps it never would have passed, anyway, but that really was the beginning of the end.”
So who was the leaker?
Everyone in Washington who followed this debate closely has a favorite suspect, but I never figured out who it was. But the universe of suspects is quite small.”
Lindsey Graham has said publicly that he does not believe it was Rahm or Axelrod.
So why wouldn’t any of the other fence-straddling senators move, despite the large coalition assembled by greens?
What really moves senators on this issue is very specific state-level considerations, not broad, amorphous coalitions. That became really clear from the reporting. And of course, primary challenges, especially for Republicans.
And enviros brought no state-level pressure?
I had pretty detailed readouts of many of the meetings that KGL had with specific members and pressure from environmental activists did not come up very much, I’m afraid.
Sigh. And the administration?
Rahm did call Reid’s office in March and suggest that they abandon C&T and just do an [Renewable Electricity Standard]. That was one of several signals the White House sent that suggested less than full-throated commitment to passing this this year. I don’t think [Pete Rouse, Obama’s incoming chief-of-staff] will make a difference. This issue is dead until 2013 at the earliest.
What about that maverick McCain?
McCain was also pissed off that enviros gave him no credit for his position on cap-and-trade during the 2008 election. His proposal was weaker than Obama’s but it was still a serious C&T bill and he was still attacked for it by Gore and others. That was his excuse, anyway. Also, his staff had a big impact. He had a more partisan chief of staff than he once had and that new COS basically sabotaged the negotiations between Lieberman and McCain.
How about popular moderate Democrat Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Energy Committee?
He believed and strenuously argued to his colleagues that there would never be 60 votes for cap-and-trade. For instance, in a private meeting with another senator on April 1, 2009, he specifically said it will be impossible to craft a passable bill that includes sufficient subsidies to coal states to satisfy Midwestern sens. He was pretty much a downer from day one.
Perhaps the EPA will save us?
Officials at the EPA told me that they have studied the amount of GHG reductions they could reasonably achieve and the number is pitifully low: 5 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
I think the prospects for keeping EPA authority are very bleak. If the EPA proposes anything with teeth, the pressure on Congress to strip EPA of its authority will be intense. Already, this is turning into a litmus test issue for 2012 GOP presidential candidates.
One important thing to add on rollback of EPA authority: Obama can veto that. But the politics will be perilous. It will all be happening during his reelection. And the coal and manufacturing states most affected by these regs happen to overlap pretty nicely with presidential swing states.
As you can see, Ryan was a regular barrel of laughs! These are grim days for climate watchers, to be sure, but I appreciate him dropping by and telling it straight.