Are Moderate Republicans & Obama’s Leadership Keys to Federal Climate Law?

Lost opportunity in 2010, with next Congress still an unknown quantity

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WASHINGTON—Chances of comprehensive climate change legislation emerging from Capitol Hill this year appear to be swirling down the congressional drain faster than most senators can pronounce “midterm re-election.”

Even so, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid still hasn’t publicly dismissed fleshing out his bare bones legislation with a renewable electricity standard and/or carbon caps, once senators file back from their August recess after Labor Day.

Their September docket will be otherwise jammed: a small business bill, a measure to halt “secret holds,” the renewed START treaty with Russia and passage of a continuing resolution on spending — all before their scheduled adjournment Oct. 8, and a return after the Nov. 2 election for a lame-duck session.

Carol Browner, too, chief climate and energy adviser for the White House, continues to mouth optimism. She offered an upbeat note to NBC’s “Meet the Press” television viewers Aug. 8.

“We will continue to see if we can get legislation,” she said. “We passed it in the House. We’ll continue to work in the Senate.”

But many longtime observers of incumbent politicians interviewed by Solve Climate News say that if it quacks like a lame duck, it is just that. That means last-minute efforts for any type of climate bill are likely dead on arrival.

The key question is, what happened, and what can advocates do differently when a new Congress, most likely with fewer Democrats, is sworn in?

Not Catering Enough to Moderate Republicans?

After the House launched supporters into euphoria by passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act in June 2009, how did the Senate plunge them to the depths of despair by not getting off the dime for the ensuing 14 months?

Yes, coal state Democrats are reluctant to clamber aboard and manufacturing states have job concerns. But why couldn’t a body with a supermajority of 60—which dropped to 59 when Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown to replace Democrat Ted Kennedy—rally enough moderate Republicans to the cause?

Those close to the negotiations say the Senate’s lack of action is due to a number of factors including dueling egos, a majority leader who doesn’t wield a large enough hammer, a president who doesn’t lay out a clear enough agenda and senators who are too inflexible to execute the horse trading necessary for an acceptable bill to emerge.

“This was a missed opportunity,” stated Jim DiPeso, policy director with Republicans for Environmental Protection. “It’s fecklessness on the Democrats’ part and irresponsibility on the part of the Republicans.”

President Obama Needs to Channel LBJ

Both DiPeso and his co-worker David Jenkins agree that Republicans need to see a well-grounded global warming bill that has rock solid support from President Obama before they take on the Herculean task of bucking their just-say-no-to-climate-legislation leadership.

“The president really has to spell out what he wants and make sure key people in Congress know what he wants, and that there will be strong consequences if he doesn’t get what he wants,” DiPeso said, adding that Obama needs strong-arming lessons from President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

No doubt, the intrepid Texas Democrat mastered his vote-gathering negotiations during his stint as Senate majority leader.

Environmental organizations recognize that because the Obama administration inherited two wars and a massive recession, it expended much political capital on a stimulus package and financial regulatory reform. And, the administration pressed forward with health care even after “tea party” protesters vilified “Obamacare” during vituperative town hall meetings in August 2009.

“Those other priorities meant there was little appetite to tackle clean energy and climate legislation,” explained Sara Chieffo, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.

But neither DiPeso nor Jenkins views that as a valid excuse.

“When Obama’s advisers told him not to mess around with climate and energy, I think that was bad advice,” DiPeso said. “Ultimately, the president is elected, not his advisers. And he’s the one who can tell (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid what he wants.

“If a president asserts leadership and sets his mind to getting something done, there’s no stopping the right person. And Obama, with the capital he had and the mandate he had …”

Bipartisan Effort Needed

If Reid expected at least 60 votes to materialize for climate legislation, he needed to invite more Republicans to the legislation-crafting stage and be diligent in garnering votes, said Jenkins, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection.

“He wants a bill with 60 votes delivered on a silver platter with a bow on top. And you can’t expect that,” he said about Reid. “And I just don’t see him changing character.”

Republicans are leery of Reid because he has put them in too many awkward situations, Jenkins said, but several moderate or moderate/conservative Republicans could and would have supported a climate measure if it had Obama’s unwavering support.

Reid displayed such a lack of adeptness just a few months ago when his talk about advancing immigration policy frightened Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina away from intense climate talks he was having with Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Jenkins said.

Even though the bill would have included provisions for nuclear energy and offshore drilling, it offered a renewed and bipartisan start at a stalled idea.

With Graham’s name on it, observers say that it would have looked ridiculous for Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and George LeMieux of Florida not to engage in moving it forward.

A whittled-down utility-only measure might have reeled in Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other alterations might have lured Richard Lugar of Indiana or Bob Corker of Tennessee.

“But where are these centrists going to go if leaders on both side aren’t providing a place for mainstream moderates?” DiPeso asked. “In an environment like that, how does someone like Olympia Snowe find a coalition to join?”

Push-Me, Pull-Me

Meetings that Obama convened with several bipartisan groups of senators weren’t as fruitful, observers say, because White House advisers were in listening mode instead of facilitating mode. Rather than approaching the gatherings with an ‘I give a little, you give a little and let’s get this done’ attitude, they were all stuck on ‘here’s why my ideas are best.’

DiPeso and others pointed out that the cap-and-dividend bill that Collins crafted with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is decent legislation that is simple to explain to voters. But because it didn’t adequately address emissions reductions, leaders needed to pluck pieces from it and other measures to forge a compromise bill.

To gain traction, Obama and his staff needed to clearly state what parts they wanted from the various pieces of climate legislation and how to specifically blend it with energy bills crafted by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“People went into these meetings committed to their ideas so it was a 30,000-foot look at potential legislation,” Chieffo said. “If they had been able to get these principals to agree to a set of legislative principles then they could have made more progress. But those negotiations didn’t happen. There was never really a final negotiating table to be at with climate change legislation.”

Lesson Learned?

Obama came to Washington with the idea of transforming a place of sharp elbows and razor-like tongues into the land of “sunshine and lollipops,” DiPeso noted.

“He’s smart and ambitious, knows how to organize a campaign and he gives one hell of a speech,” he continued. “He’s one who wants to sit down and talk things through. But the way things work in Washington, people aren’t ready for that. I think he learned a lesson with the way he handled climate change.”

Call them pessimists, but environmental advocates predict a reinvented House and Senate will have return to the proverbial comprehensive climate change legislation drawing board next year. The House now has 255 Democrats, 178 Republicans and two vacancies while the Senate has 57 Democrats, two independents and 41 Republicans. After Nov. 2, the nation will know the makeup of the 112th Congress.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” said Jenkins, adding that the legislation has to have bipartisan roots to thrive. Leaders can’t “go behind closed doors, produce legislation and then try to get people to buy in.”

“If Republicans come up with a climate idea,” he added “it makes it less easy for their leadership to go on the warpath about cap and tax.”

The need for climate change legislation is not disappearing, observers agree, because the geopolitical situation and the country’s energy vulnerabilities remain the same, no matter what the balance of power. 

“For the Republicans, the whole game of not playing ball won’t be tenable,” DiPeso said. “You can only get along for so long not doing anything. Once the campaign is over, they’re going to have to spell out specific bill language. Yes, they’re going to make some people mad. But they need to realize that’s politics.”

(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)