Mass. Senate Race Threatens to Shift Political Landscape for Climate Legislation

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Massachusetts voters go to the polls today to elect a replacement for the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, and the outcome could have serious implications for climate legislation.

This election will make or break the Democrats’ current 60-vote majority in the Senate, which is just enough right now to end a Republican filibuster. Much of the national discussion centers on the health care bill, which Republican candidate Scott Brown opposes. But a Republican victory also would likely mean defeat for cap-and-trade legislation this year.

Brown, a state senator, has indicated that he would eagerly side with Congress’s Republican leaders against regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

He writes on his campaign web site that he opposes cap-and-trade, and he carefully qualifies any support of environmental policies or renewable energy by saying he supports them if they fit his definitions of “common-sense” or “reasonable” — two subjective phrases frequently used by supporters of high-polluting industries to criticize environmental protection.

Democrat Martha Coakley’s campaign site has a more extensive explanation of the state attorney general’s positions, starting with this statement: “Martha recognizes that climate change is one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.”

Seeing what appears to be a close race, several groups worried about preserving the Democrats’ 60 votes have been pouring support into Coakley’s campaign. The League of Conservation Voters rolled out a $350,000 ad campaign in the final week criticizing Brown’s environmental positions.

“Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy, Scott Brown would take us back to the failed Bush-Cheney energy policies — siding with the big oil companies who oppose energy reform over new clean energy jobs for Massachusetts workers,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.

A strong showing by Brown in largely Democratic Massachusetts could also have the effect of pressuring Democrats to run on an even weaker environmental platform in the coming elections, said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. “If we are in a Senate scenario of Coakley losing, there will be a lot of reassessing how to get stuff done."

What If Democrats Lose Their 60-Vote Majority?

The Democrats still have open routes to congressional action, even if they lose the 60 Senate votes needed for cloture.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Bloomberg in an interview Friday that the party had already prepared for a possible shift to the reconciliation process when it wrote the health care bill. Reconciliation, which uses the budget process, sets a 20-hour time limit on debate, allowing legislation that meets certain requirements to pass with a simple majority vote of 51 without the threat that a filibuster could prevent any movement at all.

The current climate legislation wouldn’t have quite so simple a ride, though. Last spring, 26 Senate Democrats voted in favor of a Republican amendment to the 2010 budget to prohibit the “use of reconciliation in the Senate for climate change legislation involving a cap and trade system.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is working with Democrat John Kerry on a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate, also opposes the use of reconciliation. And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told the Washington Post in June: “Reconciliation was never designed to write substantive legislation. It was designed solely for deficit reduction. The whole idea was you would change numbers, not policy.” More recently, Conrad suggested that climate legislation was unlikely to pass in an election year.

If Democrats do take climate legislation down the reconciliation route, they could actually end up producing a more progressive, streamlined legislative package that cuts out the pork piled on by fossil fuel-state Democrats in the House who demanded handouts for industry in exchange for their votes.

A few options have been floated already. A carbon fee, supported by some activists as the most straightforward, transparent and fair approach, is unlikely since anything resembling a tax would be deeply politically unpopular right now. More intriguing is a cap-and-dividend proposal by Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Cantwell and Collins’ bill, the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act, or CLEAR Act, would have the president set a gradually declining cap and require fossil fuel carbon producers — the miners and drillers, rather than the emitters — to buy permits at auction. Only those companies in need of the permits would be allowed to participate. That cuts out speculators and Wall Street traders, two areas of concern among several Democrats. The CLEAR act would then return 75 percent of the auction proceeds to the people and invest the rest in clean technology and adaptation needs.

Without 60 Democratic votes in the Senate, any climate legislation is sure to be far less complex than the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill or the Senate version introduced last fall by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“We hope it’s a more simplified version, but it’s hard to read the tea leaves,” Pica said Monday evening. “Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have not made the progress I think they wanted to. You have Reid who consistently backed off on setting firm time frames. From FOE’s standpoint, we’ve had some pretty significant concerns about the Kerry-Boxer framework. If this boil to something simple, it may be a better outcome.”

Close Race, Economic Backlash

With polls showing a close race, both parties have pulled out the big guns — Rudy Giuliani for Brown; President Obama, former President Clinton and members of Congress to fire up supporters for Coakley.

In a weekend campaign appearance for Coakley, Obama explained the close race as a backlash to the speed of the economic recovery:

"People are frustrated and they’re angry, and they have every right to be. … progress is slow, and no matter how much progress we make, it can’t come fast enough for the people who need help right now, today."

“We always knew that change was going to be hard.”

Despite that backlash, some powerful unions have come out in support of Coakley. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local council, representing more than 60,000 workers, backed Coakley. So did the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) local, which said it recognized the need for the nation to move forward and not back:

"The environmental challenges we face bring with them an historic opportunity to find solutions that also create good jobs and strengthen our economy," said Michael Monahan, business manager for IBEW Local 103. "By investing in green technologies and making our buildings, appliances, and automobiles more energy efficient, we can create many thousands of jobs. Martha Coakley is the only candidate in this race who understands this, and we look forward to working with her as our next U.S. Senator."

Coakley’s energy plan is similar to the president’s. She calls for a national cap-and-trade program to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil; expanded renewable energy use; a national renewable portfolio standard; investments in public transit; and the extension of tax incentives for hybrid and plug-in vehicles.

She also has a track record of environmental protection during her four years as attorney general.

Her office helped to implement the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state cap-and-trade program; it pushed for aggressive state energy efficiency goals; and it has reached settlements with utilities that resulted in pledges to develop more renewable energy through wind and solar.

Coakley’s office also changed the national environmental landscape with its landmark lawsuit Massachusetts v. EPA, arguing for stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts’ favor in 2007 and found that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must regulate greenhouse gas emissions if it determines they endanger the public health and welfare. The EPA issued a formal endangerment finding to that effect last month, setting the stage for greenhouse gas regulation if Congress fails to act.

“We are at a critical juncture and need leaders in the U.S. Senate who will prioritize investments in green energy and take the steps necessary to combat global warming,” said Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters Executive Director Lora Wondolowski.


UPDATE: Republican Scott Brown won the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts tonight, giving his party a 41st seat in the chamber. He will finish out the remaining two years of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s term.


See also:

Climate Advocates on the Defensive as Congress Returns

New Climate Bill Framework Embraces GOP Energy Mantra: All of the Above

The Climate Lobby from Soup to Nuts

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