Over the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, proponents of major global-warming legislation tried to spark action in Congress by focusing on the Senate.
There, heavyweights like Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut helped raise awareness of the climate issue even though they never approached the 60 votes needed to pass a bill capping greenhouse gas emissions.
But with President Obama in the White House, strategists shifted their attention to the House. And Friday, they scored a big win, a 219-212 vote in favor of a sweeping climate and energy bill.
Now the focus shifts again to the other side of Capitol Hill, where sponsors can point to a House bill that addresses a number of the concerns raised in the past by the Senate. And they hope it can help build momentum that never existed during the Bush years.
"The House acted; I think the Senate will come to the same conclusion," David Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The [House] bill that was crafted helped ameliorate some of the hard edge that people were worried about. I think that will carry the day in the Senate, as well."
Axelrod acknowledged that Democrats lack the 60 Senate votes they need to overcome a filibuster. But he insisted Obama would not let the House bill wither.
"The vote is not tomorrow," Axelrod said. "The vote will come sometime in the fall. I think we will fashion an energy package that will move this country forward and carry the day."
According to an E&E analysis of the Senate, 60 votes is within reach for a cap-and-trade climate bill, but many concessions must be made to get the measure across the goal line.
To start, there are 45 senators in the "yes" or "probably yes" camp, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
There are 23 fence sitters. Alaska's Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) need to keep their home state's oil and gas interests in mind, while Ohio's Sherrod Brown (D) and Michigan Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow are pressing for provisions that help agriculture and their state's ailing manufacturing and auto industries.
There are also 32 Republicans who are unlikely to vote for a climate bill of the shape and size that Obama and congressional Democratic leaders envision, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, an outspoken skeptic about the link between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Different senators have different perspectives on how the climate debate will play out in their chamber.
"I don't think the appetite for that kind of thing is nearly as strong on the Senate side as there is in the House," said Republican Bob Bennett of Utah.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who visited the House floor last week to lobby reluctant lawmakers, said in an interview that the measure has a chance of clearing the Senate.
"I'm optimistic, if it comes over here, that we'll have a 50-50 or better odds of passing it out of the Senate," he said. "There's a lot of momentum over here to work on this. I think we've been tactically smart, letting the House go first. I think if they can find the sweet spot, it's a very similar sweet spot over here. Stay tuned."
Sept. 18 deadline
The Senate debate is expected to begin in earnest when lawmakers return from the Fourth of July recess.
Boxer will have the bulk of the responsibilities in writing the cap-and-trade provisions of the legislation.
In an interview Saturday, Boxer said she would introduce a climate bill "very soon" in July, with "enough time so we can have a couple of legislative hearings and a couple of briefings."
The three-term senator said she would build from the House bill, with plans for a markup before the end of July. Beyond Boxer's Environment panel, five other Senate committees are also expected to weigh in: Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources, Finance and Foreign Relations.
Reid has set a Sept. 18 deadline for the six committees to produce their pieces of the bill for consideration on the Senate floor this fall. Already, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month approved major sections of the bill after a marathon markup.
On Friday, Reid called to congratulate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on passing the climate bill. And in a press release after the House vote, the Nevada Democrat said he planned to work with Obama to get his version of the bill adopted.
"The [House] bill is not perfect, but it is a good product for the Senate and our committees to start considering and begins the nation's inevitable movement to clean and abundant renewable energy and away from harmful and inefficient use of fossil fuels," Reid said.
House Democratic leaders on Friday trumpeted their accomplishment and did what they could to press Reid and the Senate.
"I urge the Senate to pass it, perhaps amend it, but get it to conference quickly, so that we can send a bill that President Obama will sign and point to as one of the single most historic achievements of this Congress, and maybe any Congress," Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said.
A more active White House
The White House, which played a major role in the closing days of the House debate, is expected to play a greater role in the Senate debate. After all, Vice President Joe Biden served in the Senate for 36 years and Obama spent four years there.
"Clearly, we saw the president was very engaged in this effort," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the head of the House Democrats' 2010 campaign operation. "So he's going to be working with us very hard to get the votes in the Senate. Obviously, having served there, he knows a lot of the members."
The president and his team will face a challenge, since regional interests tend to trump party loyalties in energy legislation.
"I think you have to think what the impact is at home," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said earlier this month. "Certainly, I want to support the president when I can. But I can't when I can't.
It is unclear where Obama might do the most good. A day after last November's election, President-elect Obama talked about climate change during a meeting in Chicago with his Republican rival from the presidential race, McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
In an interview earlier this month, McCain, who twice forced Senate floor votes on cap-and-trade legislation during the Bush years, said he had not heard from Obama on climate change since last November.
"I don't think it's possible," McCain said. "It's total disarray. There's no bipartisanship, there's no consensus."
Asked how Obama could win his vote on climate change, McCain replied, "Sit down and negotiate seriously. We've had none of that."
Graham said he would support climate legislation so long as it includes less aggressive emission targets and greater incentives for nuclear power and offshore oil and natural gas development.
"The bottom line, if you want to get 60 votes, you're going to have to broaden this beyond cap and trade," Graham said.
Obama will also need to watch his left flank, which includes Boxer, Vermont's Bernie Sanders (I), and New Jersey Democrats Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg. Consider nuclear power, an issue that McCain amped up in his 2005 climate bill to the point that it ultimately drove Boxer and three other senators to vote against the plan.
"If the president moves toward McCain, then he loses people like Barbara Boxer," said Andrew Wheeler, a former staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee's ranking Republican, Inhofe.
Boxer insists that Obama has been laying the groundwork for the climate debate by sending to Capitol Hill several of his top advisers, including Axelrod and White House climate czar Carol Browner. Also of note: one of Obama's top legislative affairs officials at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is Sanders' former environmental aide, Jessica Maher.
'Heart of success'
The consensus on Capitol Hill is that no group will be more important to the success of the next Senate global warming bill than the collection of moderate Democrats from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West who say the climate debate so far has not taken their interests into account.
"The heart of success resides in industrial state senators who are both Democratic and Republicans," said James Connaughton, who chaired CEQ under President George W. Bush. "That's not just success in passage, but the lasting success of the program."
Connaughton, who now works to promote cap-and-trade legislation as a vice president at Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, said Obama would be smart to focus in on this group of 15 or so senators. "These guys are responsible for the manufacturing engine of America," he said. "They kind of have an accountability that goes beyond their state, to be sure that the policy is done in a way that doesn't disrupt or create incredible disruption in that sector."
Chelsea Maxwell, a former climate adviser to former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said Senate Democratic leaders may very well finish close to the House's position on the legislation. But they must not pretend they are cutting and pasting from the House bill.
"The Senate has to go through the process itself," said Maxwell, a consultant at the Clark Group. "Those members have to be negotiated with. They have to be out there with pens and paper, saying this is the timetable, this is the target, this is what we need for agriculture offset. They really have to go through that."
Maine's Collins urged Democrats to work cautiously on the climate bill. "I think it's an enormously complicated issue, and it'd be a mistake to try to rush through it," she said early this month. "The House bill has become a monstrosity. It's huge. It has all sorts of accommodations to special interests, and I hope that we in the Senate will start fresh."
Starting fresh may mean making concessions to moderate Republicans on the cap-and-trade plan, though that could mean upsetting environmental groups and liberal Democrats. Consider Murkowski, who two years ago co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that curbed greenhouse gas emissions, but with a ceiling on how much carbon allowances would cost.
"I keep going to some of the reasons I supported it," Murkowski, the ranking member of Bingaman's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview earlier this month. "There was a safety valve, an escape hatch, if you will. There was a level of certainty to industry that you knew how bad bad was going to be. I've not seen that in what's coming out of the House."
There are other obstacles, too. Economic conditions and demands on the United States from China, heading into U.N. climate talks this December, make the Senate debate even more complicated, said Wheeler, who works now for B&D Consulting.
"I see the climate bill in the Senate to be in worse shape than it was a year ago," Wheeler said. "The number of issues and problems have expanded, not decreased."
Reid can expect pushback from many Democratic moderates as they slog through an agenda this summer and fall that is jammed with health care reform, fiscal 2010 appropriations bills and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation.
"I'm just saying. I don't see, personally -- and again, this is above my pay grade -- I don't see how it all fits together this year," said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-S.D.). "Just go through the list."
Inhofe insists that Democrats have no more than 35 supporters for cap-and-trade legislation. And he predicts that Obama does not want to risk an unsuccessful Senate floor fight ahead of the December U.N. climate negotiations in Denmark, where international pressure on the United States will be enormous.
"I think they are trying to put out as pretty a picture as they can for Copenhagen, but they don't want to go there after it's defeated," Inhofe said.
Yet there is plenty of reason to think a deal remains possible this year in the Senate on the climate bill.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a close friend of Obama's who has remained on the fence on climate legislation, said the global warming debate will fit in well with the president's overall agenda.
"I think there's more likely to be compromises this year, because everyone understands the economy is in such a fragile condition that you don't want to pass anything that's going to do any kind of have the opposite impact that we're trying to have on the stimulus," she said. "We don't want to work against ourselves here in terms of job creation."
Maxwell, the former Senate staffer who worked on last year's climate bill, urged sponsors not to ignore Republicans who on the surface have doubts about a cap-and-trade bill, including Sens. Michael Crapo of Idaho, Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Voinovich of Ohio. Crapo and Brownback worked in 2008 on a series of agriculture amendments that never came up for floor debate because the legislation got bogged down over procedure.
"Engagement even from those who are leaning 'no' is important," Maxwell said. "You can never get them on the fence if they're not paying attention to the details."
For his part, Voinovich tried during last year's debate to offer an alternative with a far less aggressive cap-and-trade concept. This time around, the two-term Ohio lawmaker, who retires in 2010, told E&E he wants to engage Democrats throughout the process.
"I'm going to continue to try to work to see if we can't come up with something that makes sense," Voinovich said. "If I can't do that, then the next issue would be to try to get those amendments passed in the committee. And if that doesn't work, then I'll have to do what I did last time, and that's try and stop this bill from getting passed."
And do not forget Lieberman. The Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee no longer sits on Boxer's committee, one of his punishments for supporting McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the Connecticut independent said he would try to work on the issue through a series of amendments or a bipartisan group that could factor into the debate once the bill gets out of Boxer's committee.
"Let's put it this way," Lieberman said. "There are a number of Republicans who are neither a definite 'yes' or a definite 'no.' And that's the group I'm working with."
Reporter Allison Winter contributed.