On Thursday, the Senate Democratic caucus held a meeting and everyone emerged giddy as schoolchildren. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called it “one of the most motivating, energized, and even inspirational caucuses that I’ve been a part of.” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called it “absolutely thrilling.” Said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), “It was really very, very powerful. It was inspirational, quite frankly.”

This is, to say the very (very) least, uncharacteristic. Are these Senate Democrats we’re talking about? What happened at this meeting?

A source on the Hill sent along a few details.


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Recall that at the previous caucus meeting last week, there were some presentations on climate and energy legislation, but no time for discussion. There hasn’t really been a broad caucus discussion on this subject for a while. The only “news” about the climate bill’s fate has come from Hill reporters chasing down senators who don’t like cap-and-trade so they can say, once again, that they don’t like cap-and-trade. The airwaves have been filled with pundits doing what they do, which is predicting failure.

Well, stop the presses. It turns out there’s fairly robust agreement among Senate Democrats, including many moderates, that climate change is not a political football — it’s a real problem in the world, it needs to be addressed, and the best way to do that is to put a price on carbon. They’ve been quietly organizing for the past few weeks to say as much.

Some 20 senators rose to speak at the meeting, and with a few exceptions, they reaffirmed that the bill must be comprehensive and that this is the year to do it. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in particular spoke forcefully on behalf of a strong bill that includes climate measures. A few, including Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), argued for waiting until next year, but they were in the minority. Most significantly, key moderates like Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) backed action.

Strategy: finance, not health care

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Senate Dems have tried two basic strategies this year. There’s the traditional approach, the one taken with the health-care bill, which is to negotiate with themselves for months in pursuit of Republican support, water down legislation, deflate the base, and meet a buzzsaw of hysterical Tea Party opposition regardless.

It worked on health care for one reason and one reason only: the brief historical anomaly of 60 Democrats in the Senate. Without those 60, it would have failed. Now 60 is gone.

Nonetheless, the climate bill has been proceeding along the same well-worn rut, with Kerry and Lieberman ladling on offshore drilling, natural gas, nuclear, and coal subsidies to lure corporate and, it was hoped, Republican support. Yet the only Republican support that ever materialized, Lindsey Graham (S.C.), flaked out at the first sign of danger. Now even the few remaining “moderates” on the Republican side are digging in their heels, right on cue.

There are no more compromises to make and no one left to compromise with. The traditional approach can only lead to failure now.

The other approach is what pushed financial reform over the top: Take a strong bill to the floor without 60 votes, beat the sh*t out of Republicans for obstructionism, use public opinion in your favor, compromise where you’re forced, and pry off enough votes to get it done. It’s the go-big-or-go-home strategy. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) argued, and it looks like the caucus generally agreed, it’s time to go that route on climate.


Of course, climate is no finance. There’s nothing like the same public anger or demand for action. No senator yet fears opposing climate action. A more cynical Senate staffer told me that Reid’s new ambition is a sign that all hope for passage has been abandoned and this has become a “message bill.” Clearly if Republicans are going to block unemployment benefits while unemployment is close to 10 percent, they’re going to block anything.

Could Dems pull off a finreg on climate? It depends on two things. First is whether they can successfully yoke the whole effort to anger about BP and put Republicans in the position of blocking BP-related reforms. The Barton panic showed that the GOP feels vulnerable. If anything can shame them — and that’s in serious question — it’s the GOBP tag.

Second is whether Democratic “centrists” can play against type and pull it together to back their party and their president. If this looks like just another doomed but noble effort that will stall out in the low 50s, no Republican will budge. If it gets support from Begich, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and the other Democratic fence-sitters — if it starts creeping up to 56, 57 — then you get a little bit of that Moment in History vibe that Obama conjured so well on health care. Then maybe you start getting Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), George LeMieux (R-Fla.), maybe even George Voinovich (R-Ohio) or Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

To be honest, pulling together, getting behind a bill worth being proud of, and heading to the floor for a do-or-die showdown is so utterly out of character for Senate Democrats that it’s probably not going to happen. Beltway gravity will reassert itself. Even if they did charge to the floor with a good bill, the chances of a good bill coming out the other end are slim.

But who knows? Maybe this time Dems will hang on to that sense of excitement and inspiration they got at the caucus meeting. Maybe they’ll remember how good it feels to fight for something that’s right even when the path to victory isn’t clear. Stranger things have happened.