Sen. John McCain once reveled in his stance as a maverick of the Republican Party on climate change. Now, as the Senate prepares a new bill, the party's 2008 presidential nominee has people wondering whose side he's on.
McCain opened the year critical of President Obama's plan to pay for middle-class tax cuts with global warming legislation. He called the House-passed bill a "1,400-page monstrosity," pointing out special giveaways to reluctant lawmakers and provisions that threaten to spark an international trade war.
While McCain has built a reputation as a critic of government excess, his complaints about the Democrat-led effort to overhaul U.S. climate policy have stumped many longtime advocates who often looked to him for leadership during eight years of the Bush administration.
"If you're a climate champion, then you need to be in there doing something constructive and not just throwing bombs at a package," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club. "From where I sit in Arizona, it seems like he's not been particularly constructive on this. We'd love for him to be."
Sources following McCain offer a number of explanations for his recent behavior. Some say this is just McCain being himself, voicing his opposition to specifics in the House bill that look like earmarks or policies that disrupt free trade. Others see a lawmaker struggling to find a voice on the issue now that Bush is out of office, especially since the Republican Party sees the legislation as political red meat. It could also be that McCain sees others taking away the spotlight on an issue he had long been associated with.
"If you're the first one to introduce an idea, and then someone picks it up and runs with the idea, but runs in a direction counter to what you want to take it in, I think its not a little surprising that you'd be critical," said Nikki Roy of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), McCain's partner in the climate debate dating to 2001, said too many other issues have been on the front burner and the two have not spoken at length about global warming since last November's presidential election. But Lieberman, the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee and rumored to be on McCain's short list for the VP nomination last year, said that he would soon make a push with McCain as part of a broader effort to rally moderate senators on the issue.
"He can play a very important role in the Senate," Lieberman said. "It's almost a necessary role. And I know he cares. He accepts the reality of global warming and wants to see us do something about it."
Senate Democratic leaders face a tough climb in winning 60 votes on a climate bill, and McCain is seen in many circles as one linchpin to victory. For one thing, sponsors are going to have to cross the aisle considering a handful of Democrats, namely West Virginia's Robert Byrd, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Nebraska's Ben Nelson, are likely to vote against the climate bill.
"There is no partisan option in the Senate," Roy said.
For appearances' sake, Democrats might have trouble explaining how they could not keep one of the issue's biggest champions on board. And they also know that if they can get McCain's support, they also have a chance at winning other Republicans who look to him for guidance on the issue including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Murkowski, for instance, agrees with McCain's recent criticism of the House bill. "I was a cosponsor of cap and trade," she said. "That's not an issue that I'm ducking from. But I do believe that in order to fashion something that makes sense for this country, particularly when our economy is really in the tank, you don't make a mistake with this."
'A fig leaf and a joke'
McCain's climate record is not black and white.
Following the 2000 Republican primaries, McCain latched on to the issue, citing as his eureka moment when a student dressed in a cape and calling himself "Captain Climate" who stood up and peppered him with climate questions during the New Hampshire campaign.
Back in the Senate, McCain and Lieberman partnered in the summer of 2001, taking advantage of a political moment after Bush reversed himself on a campaign pledge to press for carbon dioxide limits on power plants (E&E Daily, Aug. 6, 2001).
Two years later, the duo introduced a cap-and-trade bill covering large segments of the U.S. economy. But the bill was seemingly going nowhere with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) chairing the Environment and Public Works Committee and openly questioning the science on global warming. So McCain used a Senate parliamentary maneuver that forced then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to allow a floor vote on the climate legislation in exchange for the go ahead on a separate Bush-led energy bill.
The McCain-Lieberman bill lost 43-55 (E&E Daily, Oct. 30, 2005).
In 2005, McCain and Lieberman tried again. Hoping to pick up votes, they attached a new section aimed at helping the nuclear power industry. Instead, the bill lost 38-60 after five Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, jumped ship (E&E Daily, June 23, 2005).
Trying to maintain momentum, McCain insisted repeatedly that he would be back, likening his efforts to the campaign finance reform bill that ultimately did win passage during Bush's first term. "Joe and I will make the U.S. Senate keep on voting and voting and voting and voting," McCain said in April 2006. "Over time we will not be elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate, but we will win."
McCain was also critical of rival climate bills. During the 2005 Senate debate, for example, he took issue with legislation from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that included less aggressive emission limits, as well as a "safety valve" that put a cap on the price of a carbon allowance. "There is no middle ground," McCain said at the time. "You've got to have an immediate effort to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Anything less than that is a fig leaf and a joke."
Insisting that compromise was the key to success, McCain clashed with environmental groups who did not like his efforts on nuclear power. "With all due respect to our friends at PIRG, they're the classic example of you have to have it their way or you jump off," he said (E&E Daily, June 17, 2005).
And he sparred with Bush officials. In 2006, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain pressed White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman Jim Connaughton to explain why there had been no movement away from a suite of largely voluntary climate policies. "There's obviously no progress with the administration to address this situation," McCain said after the hearing. "That's unfortunate."
Fast forward to the 2008 campaign, and McCain was again upsetting environmentalists over his climate policy. He insisted to reporters that cap-and-trade legislation should not be described with the term "mandatory caps" -- a statement that seemed to fundamentally misinterpret the whole point of the policy. He also questioned the Democrats' call to attach other energy provisions onto a climate bill, including a new federal low carbon fuel limit, stronger fuel economy standards and policies to reduce U.S. oil consumption.
Perhaps the most surprising move came when McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Palin had previously questioned global warming science, and she repeated those comments during interviews on the campaign trail.
At the same time, McCain held firm on his support for climate legislation, even in the face of opposition from many Republican leaders and rank-and-file members.
In contrast with GOP comments during last month's House debate, McCain argued that a cap-and-trade bill would work during the country's historic recession, citing the economic opportunities from a climate bill and questioning modelers who do not consider technological innovation and other ways to lower the policy's costs. He also held firm in his opposition to a "safety valve" limit on price limits, a point environmentalists say would stymie development of low-carbon energy sources.
And McCain trumpeted the science, citing congressional delegation trips he had led to Antarctica, the North Pole and Alaska.
"Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and the endless troubles that global warming would bring," McCain said in a May 2008 speech at a wind power manufacturing plant in Portland, Ore. "We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great. The most relevant question now is whether our own government is equal to the challenge."
Breaking with Obama
McCain traveled to Chicago just days after last November's election to meet with Obama at the president-elect's transition office. At the time, McCain said he "obviously" planned to partner with the incoming administration to implement its agenda, which included the economic recovery, energy and security.
But something happened between Chicago and Washington.
He railed against Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package. The two differed on how to tackle the Afghanistan war. And they have clashed over global warming policy.
In his fiscal 2010 budget package, Obama assumed $650 billion of dollars in revenue from the cap-and-trade legislation over the first decade of its implementation. The administration also began planning to use the money to pay for tax cuts and low-carbon energy technology research and development.
"I think it's really the wrong approach," McCain told E&E at the time. "What it does is it alienates many of us who are for cap and trade but who now see it as being used simply as a way to raise taxes on people and raise revenue for other things. That, I think, is very bad for the country."
And McCain joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing the House bill, H.R. 2454, narrowing in on several high-profile details that were critical to securing the measure's passage. For one, McCain challenged the emission allocations, something he and Lieberman purposefully kicked to the executive branch in their 2003 and 2005 versions of the bill.
"It's ridiculous," McCain said. "It's as if the bazaar was open. Whoever needed to get a vote, they gave them a deal."
The Arizona Republican also sounded off against language in the House bill that would slap trade sanctions on carbon-intensive goods that come from developing countries without their own stringent climate standards. "It's protectionist," McCain said. "I'm a free trader. It calls for us to mandatory enact protectionist measures against countries that don't meet standards that we set."
Obama and some Senate Democrats have also criticized the trade language.
In his bill with Lieberman, McCain never addressed the trade issue, one of the central concerns of lawmakers from manufacturing states who are concerned their local industries will move offshore. Aides who worked on the McCain-Lieberman bill explain that some of the proposed solutions were not being discussed at the time they wrote their legislation.
But McCain did flirt with supporting the trade sanction approach during last year's presidential race. At one point, his campaign actually released the text of a speech on climate change that included language in favor of the approach. At the last minute, McCain himself yanked it out (ClimateWire, May 13, 2008).
To date, McCain has not said much about what he intends to do when the Senate climate debate begins later this summer. He has emphasized support for nuclear power, and GOP leaders have crafted an alternative that would build 100 new plants.
Asked about the Senate debate, McCain said only, "I hope it's vastly different than the House bill."
McCain also rationalizes that his criticism does not conflict with his earlier efforts. "It says I've had good bills, and this is a lousy one," he said.
But the Republican's stance has launched a guessing game of which McCain will take part in this year's debate.
"At best, McCain has been inconsistent," said Dan Weiss, the director of climate strategy for the liberal Center for American Progress. "At worst, he's changed his position."
Many insist that he has a right to speak up.
"He's not criticizing cap and trade," said Roy of the Pew Center. "He's not criticizing doing something about climate change. What he's criticizing is the way it's being done in this legislation. And I think that's fair."
"He's the grandfather among Republicans on climate change," added Chelsea Maxwell, a former aide to retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) who helped write last year's climate bill. "There are a lot of people who are eager to get him back in a positive frame of mind on this."
David Jenkins of the Republicans for Environmental Protection worked on McCain's presidential campaign. He has since spoken to the senator's staff and has assurances that McCain will be there when the legislation begins to ripen. "Senator McCain has owned this issue for such a long time," Jenkins said. "I couldn't imagine that he'd start to cede that ground at this point in the game. If he didn't back away from this during the presidential race, during the primary season, why would he do so now?"
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) also expects McCain to get more involved when the legislation ripens. But when he does, Voinovich expects McCain to have a different take than many expect. "I think he probably has a much better appreciation of the impact all this has on various sections of the country because he ran a presidential campaign. Up until that, I don't think there were a lot of things he was aware of."