Reports out of Washington have alternated between sky-is-falling disaster and soothing claims of only minor delays in producing a Senate climate bill. Either way, Monday's unveiling date for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate and energy plan has come and gone, with no legislation to be seen.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been the only Republican voice behind the bill, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and overhauling much of the U.S. energy system. Over the weekend, however, he bristled at the Obama administration and Senate Democrats' sudden push to deal with immigration reform ahead of climate and energy, calling it "nothing more than a cynical political ploy" as the 2010 elections loom.
"This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year," Graham wrote to his colleagues on the bill, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "I will not allow our hard work to be rolled out in a manner that has no chance of success."
Graham made similar comments Monday night after meeting with Kerry and Lieberman, who had hoped to get the bill back on track.
"I don't want to play politics with issues that really do mean a lot to me," Graham told reporters.
Environmentalists who support the senators' climate and energy plan will be placated if the result is only a few days of further delay as procedural issues and orders of operations are sorted out. But if the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill actually does lie in tatters, what next?
Graham Still Supports Climate Message
"This is very urgent, to address climate and energy legislation this year," said David Doniger, the Climate Center policy director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We have to move quickly to get it done this summer in the Senate so it can be done this year in the whole Congress and signed by the president."
Doniger pointed out that before abandoning hope completely, it is important to note that Graham has not changed his views on the specific message of the climate and energy bill.
The details of that bill have not yet been made public, but it is largely believed that it will follow the Obama Administration's stated goals of lowering U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It is expected to take an all-of-the-above approach to energy, with support for nuclear, offshore drilling and carbon capture and storage, and include an emissions cap for electric utilities.
"What is clear is that Senator Graham has not in any way pulled back from the substance of the initiative," Doniger said.
"If the cap has got its basic integrity, then that's very critical. We're going to have to look very closely at other titles on matters like nuclear and offshore oil."
Another Option: The CLEAR Act
If Sen. Graham's concerns, be they procedural or substantive, prevent the bill from reaching the Senate soon, it is important to note that there is another bipartisan option already out there.
"There has been a lot of anticipating and waiting, and speculating and feverish discussion about when Kerry-Graham-Lieberman would drop a bill and what the bill would say," said John Diamond, communications director for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). "And all along, all during that time, there already is a bipartisan climate bill that's in the hopper, and has been there since December."
The CLEAR Act — Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal — co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), differs from cap-and-trade proposals, which would set limits on emissions, such as from power plants, and then auction off or give away carbon permits up to those limits that could be traded among polluters.
Instead, the CLEAR Act would set up what the senators call a cap-and-refund system that would set carbon caps upstream, on the producers and importers of polluting fuels like coal and oil, and would funnel most of the proceeds from the closed permit auctions back to consumers.
"My boss and Senator Collins have gone to multiple meetings with the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman group, and they've had good faith discussions, and they're certainly glad that those senators are interested in the same issues, but it has also been a matter of some frustration that there has been all this focus on a bill that doesn't yet exist when we already have a bill in the hopper which we think offers a very solid, reasonable solution to the problem," Diamond said.
He said that while it has been difficult for Cantwell to express support for the apparently competing yet so far non-existent Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate and energy plan, the fact that there are multiple bipartisan efforts ongoing is encouraging.
"On the whole, we want more senators to be involved in this issue, and we want there to be an energy behind the whole climate legislation drive, so in that sense, we don't want their effort to sort of fall away. But in terms of the specifics of the legislation, we're kind of partial to our bill."
Will Cantwell-Collins fill the void if Kerry-Graham-Lieberman falls by the wayside?
"Who knows?" said Diamond. "The Senate is just impossible to predict, and there is no point in me trying."
Perhaps Only a Snag
In spite of the ongoing troubles and Graham's potential removal from the equation, negotiations are apparently continuing. In fact, as late as Monday afternoon it was reported that the Senate will send the still-hidden bill to the EPA for its economic review. This could mean a floor debate on the bill could occur within about six weeks.
Doniger remains optimistic that the arguments can be worked out and that moving from the current proposals toward Cantwell-Collins or other ideas would be counterproductive.
"We're just focused on emphasizing the urgency of moving forward on this initiative and solving those process issues, and I just don't see that it's time for people to start thinking about other strategies or other vehicles," he said. "The most important thing is to find out quickly if they can get back on track."
(Photo: Lindsey Graham, U.S. Senate)