Muckraker: Grist on Politics

After months of engine-revving, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act sputtered to a halt in the Senate last week. Now attention has turned to what was learned — or wasn’t — and how things might play out the next time a climate bill makes it this far.

Despite what looked from the outside like an unproductive and anticlimactic week of grandstanding and delays, the bill’s sponsors emerged from the experience claiming sunny optimism about the future. “It’s a giant step for the United States Senate,” said Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “It puts us on the path to getting this done hopefully next year.”

OK, what comes next?

Last Friday’s cloture vote — intended to avert a threatened Republican filibuster and begin the extended process of hashing out amendments — failed 48-36, well short of the 60 votes needed to move forward. But Lieberman and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who shepherded the bill to the Senate floor, said they are considering it a 54-36 vote, because six senators — Joe Biden (D-Del.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — submitted statements [PDF] declaring that they would have voted yes had they been present. Boxer said her greatest expectation at the start of the process was to get 51 votes.

But there’s a flaw in Boxer’s 54-votes logic: Nine of the Democratic senators who voted to move the bill forward to the amendment process did not in fact support the bill as drafted, which they explained in a letter to Boxer and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Another four Democrats voted against moving the bill forward at all: Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Mary Landrieu (La.).

These skeptical Democrats, many from energy-producing and manufacturing states, are concerned about the economic impacts the bill would have on their constituents.

Boxer said she would start meeting with them promptly to discuss their concerns and talk about future legislation. Critics on both the right and the left say that she should have been having those meetings well before the bill went to the Senate floor, and that she and other supporters should have articulated better economic arguments in favor of the bill. Some have also argued that the timing of the bill was flawed — Boxer released her manager’s amendment less than two weeks before the bill was set to go to the floor, which didn’t allow much time for economic analysis. She put out yet another draft with updated figures and additions the very day debate was set to begin. Though the basic components of the bill hadn’t changed, the last-minute alterations gave Republican leaders additional fodder for a threatened filibuster.

During floor discussion of the bill, Republicans pushed lobbyist-drafted talking points about how the legislation would raise energy costs for consumers and hamper the economy, while Boxer repeatedly invoked suffering polar bears (which are, she reminded the assembled, God’s creatures). Polar bears are charismatic, but not that charismatic in the face of $4-a-gallon gasoline.

Grand Old Party Grandstanding

Whatever the strategic missteps of Boxer, Reid, and the bill’s two primary sponsors, the Climate Security Act failed primarily for a simple reason: The Republican leadership created a procedural logjam and then got the votes they needed to run the bill into the ground.

It’s worth noting, however, that a number of Republicans facing tough reelection campaigns voted to move the bill forward. Six Republicans joined bill cosponsor John Warner (R-Va.) in voting for cloture on the bill, and five of those will be in competitive races this fall: Susan Collins (Maine), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), Mel Martinez (Fla.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), and John Sununu (N.H.). Their defections demonstrate that Republicans in purple states fear the optics of outright obstructionism on climate.

“The politics are on the side of action,” said Jeremy Symons, executive director of the global warming center at the National Wildlife Federation. “The money and the lobbying may be on the side of inaction, but it’s hard to go home and face your constituents when you won’t even allow serious debate on global warming legislation.”

Even among those who voted against cloture, the debate has shifted considerably since global warming was last taken up seriously by the Senate, in 2005. Not a single senator challenged the reality of climate change or its connection to human activity last week. Even the Senate’s chief climate-change denier, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), used his time on the floor to parrot the official GOP line — that the proposed cap-and-trade system would cripple the economy — rather than to question climate science.

Industry lobbyists have shifted their approach too. “You can’t simply say no to everything,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which lobbies on behalf of power companies like Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp. “Instead you have to say thoughtfully what is the best way to reduce carbon cost-effectively.”

Looking to November

After last week’s debate, it’s clear that, with all due respect to God’s polar bears, sponsors of future climate legislation will have to tackle economic concerns head-on. To be successful, they’ll need to make the case that an aggressive carbon cap-and-trade bill will be a jobs-generator rather than a jobs-killer, stimulating expansion of clean-tech industries and invigorating the desiccated U.S. manufacturing sector. As green-jobs activist Van Jones put it, proponents of climate legislation need to make the case that “this isn’t something we’re going to do to the economy, it’s something we’re going to do for the economy.”

“It is essential to getting the kind of consensus we need in the United States that we be able to say pretty unequivocally that the clean energy economy is going to be a fairer one than the one we’re living in,” said David Foster, executive director of the Blue-Green Alliance, a partnership between the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club. “I think there’s been a tendency to state that global warming is only an environmental issue. What we have is the most important piece of environmental legislation for the next 50 years, the most important piece of economic legislation, the most important trade negotiation that any of us will see in our lifetime, all wrapped up in one.”

Supporters of climate action hope elections this fall will tilt things in their favor. There are 35 Senate races this November, 23 of them for seats currently held by Republicans. Election watchers say at least nine of those seats could flip Democratic. Among them are the seats of retiring Sens. John Warner (Va.), cosponsor of the Climate Security Act, and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), ranking minority member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (Inhofe is also up for reelection, as is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), ringleader for the procedural stalling on the climate bill last week, but their seats are thought to be safe.)

Said Boxer as she looked ahead to climate legislation in 2009, “We will have the Senate next year, and we will have a president who will be hospitable to this subject.” Indeed, much is being made of the fact that both Obama and McCain support an economy-wide cap-and-trade system, though the details of their plans are strikingly different.

Many environmentalists were disappointed that neither presidential candidate made it back for last week’s debate, but David Jenkins, government affairs director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, argues it was just as well. “It was probably in hindsight better that they stood back from this so that they can come in with their own proposals and hopefully generate a much more constructive process once they’re in office,” he said. “It just got so petty and partisan, it wasn’t worthy of the stature of the issue.”

The lack of bully-pulpit support for climate legislation was keenly felt this go-around. Without leadership from the White House, it was almost impossible to start serious debate last week, making it clear once again how important the next commander-in-chief will be in getting climate action underway.