Don't bury cap-and-trade legislation just yet.
That was the message from several moderate Senate Democrats yesterday who a day earlier had joined with Republicans in a 67-31 Senate vote against fast-tracking a climate change bill so that it did not have to face a filibuster.
"It was a little bit of a false issue," explained Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, one of the 26 Democrats who voted against the option of including climate change in a budget reconciliation bill. "It really didn't amount to anything because I don't think it was going to happen anyway."
"The issue is still very much alive," added Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who said she would work on cap-and-trade legislation through regular order so long as Senate Republicans also are on board.
There is little doubt that Senate Democrats face a long slog to find 60 votes on climate legislation, even with President Obama's support. Now, advocates for cap-and-trade legislation who pushed for the reconciliation option must tamp down any lingering resentment from the very moderate voices they will need to pass a bill.
"It's a bad mistake to try to cut out the Republicans and cut off debate and limit amendments on such an important bill, and I say that as a supporter of cap and trade," argued Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Senate sponsors of climate legislation erred in advocating for the fast-track option. "As someone who believes we need to get to a truly 21st century energy policy and recognizes the challenge of global warming, I think that you're going to need -- that you aren't going to be able to build the consensus that you need if you try to do reconciliation," Warner said. "You're going to get people opposing based on process, rather than policy. And I think that it may make the challenge a little bit harder, but I think we'll get there."
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) voted for keeping the reconciliation option open on global warming, though he still has significant concerns before he signs off on cap-and-trade legislation. "I'm an environmentalist," he said. "I want cap and trade. I just want to make sure that the ratepayers in my state don't get socked hard. And that the manufacturing doesn't get crippled."
Other Democrats said they too could support cap-and-trade legislation -- just so long as they get a chance to influence the details.
"I'm not on the committee of jurisdiction, but I'm going to study cap and trade and make sure it accomplishes its goal and that it does so in a fair way," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "I'm open to a cap-and-trade approach. But I'm not willing to tie my hands or make commitments before I see precisely what's being proposed."
Senate Republicans criticized the reconciliation prospects, no matter how much Democratic leaders and Obama tried to tamp down the prospects that they were even going to use the procedure for climate change. "Any committed legislator and representative would never affirm that it'd be right to remove from debate one of the more important issues of our time," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). "And that's what that does. Regular order is absolutely essential on something like that. That's why you had such a strong vote."
Environmentalists downplayed the significance of the debate over climate change and reconciliation, saying it would have little effect when the issue returns to the spotlight later this year. "That's all inside baseball and from our perspective has nothing to do with gathering the support we're going to need, and we'll confident we'll get, to pass a strong climate bill this year," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the lawmakers pressing for reconciliation, is concerned sponsors won't be able to get 60 votes through regular order. And if they can, Sanders worries that the bill would be watered down too much to address the threat of climate change.
"I'd say the votes over the last few days have been disappointing," Sanders said. "And it suggests to those of us who understand the crisis in terms of global warming and want to see bold action are going to have to work with the American people and develop a strong, grassroots movement to put pressure on the Congress to address this crisis. That's what we've got to do."
Looking to the House for influence
Attention for now will focus on the House, with a draft cap-and-trade and energy bill headed for markup during the week of April 27 in an Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
In her weekly press conference yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged to work across the Democratic caucus to find support for the legislation. "We are having very productive discussions among various circles," she said. "I call it the giant kaleidoscope. Different people and different designs and different meetings, but all of us concerned about having very serious, important legislation passed. But that unifies and is built on consensus in our caucus."
But Pelosi also rejected the idea she would wait to act based on the Senate's schedule. "Well, we are building our consensus, and when we are ready, we will bring it to the floor," she said. "I have never been driven by a Senate timetable or what they are willing to pass. We set our own pace and our own standard here, but respectful of what we can get done, working together with the Senate."
Turns out, Pelosi's work in the House could help with some of those very moderate Senate Democrats whose votes will be critical to crossing the 60-vote threshold there.
"I think it is to everyone's benefit to follow what the House has done," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday, explaining that it is often through big pieces of legislation that more objectives get accomplished. "You get compromise," he said.
Consider Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a member of the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. Ross also sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and his vote could be pivotal to the climate bill's chances for success both in the House and with Arkansas' senators, Pryor and Blanche Lincoln (D).
"I guarantee you if Mike Ross is OK with it, it goes a long way with me if he's with it," Pryor said. "I still have to make a judgement myself. But if he's OK with it, it means a lot to me."
Landrieu said she too would be mindful of how the 51 members of the Blue Dog coalition vote on the climate and energy bill. "It will help a lot if Blue Dog Democrats can come to terms, but it's still important to try to reach as much bipartisan consensus as possible," she said. "And I'd caution the House, with all due respect to the House members, that it really needs to be done with us in mind. And we need to hit that 60-vote threshold. And that's going to be hard to do. But the Blue Dogs will help."
For Senate Republicans, there is a wide variety of opinions about how the climate debate will proceed.
"I don't think they'll be able to do something in the House that'll satisfy the environmental community's desires, and it'll be to the point where it'd be something where they'd get enough votes in the Senate to support it," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).
Yet even Voinovich, who will retire in 2010, sounds willing to work on the issue. "What we really need to figure out is there some consensus on how to deal with climate change, be it cap and trade, be it a carbon tax, as some would rather suggest, or a sector type of approach to it," he said.
Voinovich said senators are also mindful of possible U.S. EPA climate regulations under the two-year old Supreme Court precedent in Massachusetts v. EPA. "The question is are those people who are to be regulated at a point where they look at the reality of it, are they OK with coming up with a, quote, reasonable, piece of legislation, as I said, cap and trade or something that'd be intellectually honest to deal with climate change," he said. "And if that's the case, what's the appropriate way of approaching it?"
And perhaps the most obvious GOP advocate for global warming legislation appears to be sitting on the sidelines -- for now.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republicans' 2008 presidential candidate and a longtime cosponsor of cap-and-trade legislation, said yesterday he has not heard from Obama or Senate Democratic leaders on the climate issue. "I hope we can sit down," he said, "and negotiate something we can agree on."
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.