Cards. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appear set to introduce a draft of their new climate/energy legislation this week. Graham says they are trying to hash out a moderate bill that can draw broad public support and pick up a few Republican votes.

Now, as it happens, what Graham is groping around for already exists. There is a moderate climate/energy bill that has drawn broad public support and picked up a few Republican votes. It’s called the American Clean Energy & Security Act (ACES), or Waxman-Markey. It passed the House back in June of ’09.

But Graham can’t use that bill! Indeed he has to make a big production of not using it. He has to distance himself from it as much as possible. He’s got to come up with a bill that can satisfy a wide range of legislators and interest groups … but looks completely different from the bill that’s already done so. That’s quite a pickle.

Can he do it? To answer that question, it helps to take a brief trip back in time to see how we ended up in this odd situation.

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ACES in reality

Despite stiff competition from the health-care reform bill, the Waxman-Markey bill may be the most misunderstood legislation of the Obama era. Conservatives and liberals have both caricatured it beyond recognition, its reputation now almost completely at odds with its contents and its history.

In fact, ACES was the result of careful preparation and negotiation. To establish a left flank, Markey introduced his ambitious iCap bill in May ’08. In January ’09, the enviro-business coalition USCAP introduced its own more moderate (read: weaker) blueprint. When it came time to introduce a bill, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) modeled it on USCAP — a conspicuous signal to moderates, for which more than one thanked him.

Months later, after meeting with virtually every legislator and interest group with a stake in the bill, listening to their concerns, and finding what it would take to get their support, Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) shepherded a somewhat diminished version of the bill through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is roughly representative, in terms of carbon intensity, of the overall House. Sure enough, with few more unsavory tweaks, the bill passed in the House, 219-212, with eight Republicans voting aye.

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ACES is, in other words, a moderate bill. And Waxman’s quiet pragmatism stands in glaring contrast to the leaks and counter-leaks, squabbles, and grandstanding that have characterized the Senate’s efforts at … well, anything.

ACES as ghost story

ACES isn’t seen as a moderate bill, though. Quite the contrary: it’s seen as radically liberal. Why is that? The bill’s odd reputation has four intertwining explanations:

First, as has been the case more than once this session, the House’s competence proved its undoing. ACES passed well before the Senate was prepared to take it up. That left an entire summer for the newly energized teabag movement to bash it as a puppy-killing socialist energy tax. Indeed, it has now been nine long months since ACES passed — nine months for Dems to defend a vote but not a bill, an idea but not a victory.

Second, the political press proved stunningly incompetent at assessing the bill or the politics behind it. Rather than offering some sense of the bill’s scope, its goals (clean energy and security, right there in the title!), or the breadth of political support behind it, they deemed it “cap-and-trade” and wrote story after story about its (speculative) costs. The public overwhelming supports clean energy, energy security, and legislation on their behalf. They don’t understand “cap-and-trade,” though, and they fear costs.

Third, the progressive messaging infrastructure proved utterly incompetent as usual. Rather than fighting back in a coordinated way against the “costs of cap-and-trade” narrative favored by the press and conservatives, the left formed the usual circular firing squad. Instead of driving home a counter-narrative about the benefits of legislation — energy independence, clean energy industries, lower energy bills, jobs — the left descended into Talmudic debates over the relative virtues of cap-and-trade and a carbon tax. Hmm, which way to raise energy prices? Let’s talk about that!

And finally, the U.S. Senate has become hopelessly sclerotic and dysfunctional. U.S. senators — particularly the “centrists” most needed to make a bill work — are possessed of extraordinary vanity and ignorance. They know frighteningly little about climate change, climate economics, or climate policy, but they’re quite certain they’re not going to pass something the House passed. The House is a bunch of raving liberals! Whatever gets through there is too far left by definition, in need of the Senate’s cooling saucer. (The bill’s quick passage through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, seen as a liberal bastion, only reinforced the impression.)

Add these together and ACES, along with “cap-and-trade,” became irrevocably tarnished, particularly in the pinched worldview of the Senate’s self-described centrists. That’s why Graham said, in October, “What I’m trying to do is make sure the Waxman-Markey bill from the House is dead.” That’s why he said, just last week, “Cap-and-trade is dead.” He’s got to say that, or his effort with Kerry and Lieberman will never get off the ground. No Republicans and too few conservadems can vote for “cap-and-trade,” so whatever it is, it’s got to be called something else.

But what? What should it look like? More on that tomorrow.

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