Sen. John Kerry sounds like a different kind of campaigner these days.
Five years after his White House bid fell short by 20 electoral college votes, the Massachusetts Democrat has emerged as one of his party's leading voices in trying to win passage of a major global warming and energy bill.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry brings perhaps the best insight of any lawmaker on Capitol Hill when it comes to the interplay between U.S. politics and the diplomacy surrounding a new international climate deal.
Kerry also offers experience from his presidential campaign to a bill-writing effort that will test Senate Democratic leaders' ability to answer to more than a dozen of their own moderates and conservatives, let alone a myriad of political pitfalls presented by Republicans.
"I learned a lot doing that," Kerry said in an interview. "I'm very familiar with a lot of the issues in many of those states, and very respectful of them. One of things you get out of that experience is a huge appreciation for the breadth of interest that we have in the country, and the diversity of how you have to deal with those sometimes."
But Kerry lost to then-President George W. Bush in many of the states with senators needed to pass a climate bill in 2009, from the Dakotas to Montana, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri. And there are also questions about his pairing with one of the party's biggest lightning rods, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), especially following this summer's controversial House debate, which also featured lawmakers from Massachusetts and California.
"I don't think he plays as well in Montana as he does in Massachusetts," said Andrew Wheeler, a former top aide to Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "What he doesn't want to do is become the story in those swing states."
Kerry brushes aside the question of whether he is a political liability. While he has learned lessons from the White House campaign, he maintains that writing a bill is a different beast.
"This is legislating, this is not a campaign, this is not a race for the presidency," Kerry said. "This is about how do we meet those interests. How do we deal with Jay Rockefeller? How do we get Kent Conrad or these other folks on board?"
Authors will be writing the climate bill with the knowledge that all parts of the country must be accounted for, Kerry said.
"You have to be reasonable," he said. "West Virginia has huge unemployment, a lot of folks who are on the lower end of the economic income scale, and a major coal interest, and I respect that."
For North Dakota, where Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan have questioned the wisdom of moving ahead on climate legislation this year, Kerry cites the potential for the wind energy industry.
"North Dakota, it has been determined by the [American Wind Energy] Association, is the number one potential state for wind in the country," Kerry said. "It could produce 10,000 times its own electricity needs just from wind."
'The engineer right now'
The Foreign Relations Committee is one of six panels that will be writing a section of the climate bill expected on the Senate floor this fall. Kerry has throw himself into the role of chairman, which became available when Joe Biden left the Senate to become vice president.
Since May, Kerry has held about 25 one-on-one meetings with senators on the climate issue. He has also had sit downs with dozens more foreign and administration officials, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Milliband.
Kerry hosted a March strategy dinner at his home in Georgetown that included Carol Browner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House science and technology adviser John Holdren.
"He's the engineer right now," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
"It's helpful to have someone whose heart is in this, whose mind is in this, on our side," added Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Two Democrats who are unlikely to support the bill said they are pleased Kerry and Boxer are there to answer questions about why the bill is even necessary.
"I have to reflect what's best for Nebraska and for our country, so that'll probably guide me," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). "But it's very helpful to have him explain what the objectives and the goals are of that potential legislation."
Several Republicans said Kerry's committee role can be a useful tool in the legislative push.
"It's not just the United States, and what policy we put in place," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "So much hinges on the cooperation, the collaboration we have of other nations. I think Senator Kerry can lend certainly his experience and his leadership on foreign relations to that effort."
For now, Kerry does not have answers yet for what his committee plans to do with the climate bill. As for language that he wants to put into the measure, Kerry would only reply in generalities: offsets, adaptation, technology transfer, potential goals for this December's U.N. summit on climate in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Speaking of Denmark, Obama administration staffers are still trying to determine what they want out of Congress in order for U.S. negotiators to have a strong hand at the international talks.
"I think they're working some of that through now," Kerry said, citing multilateral meetings in recent months at the Group of Eight and Major Economies Forum in Italy, as well as a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "That's how this stuff works. Over time, a consensus will develop about what's achievable and what they ought to do."
For his part, Kerry said that having the House-passed bill and legislation out of committee in the Senate should suffice.
"That's pretty good, that's a good level to go in with," he said. "Would it be better if we finished the job here and got it passed? Absolutely, that's our goal, but we have to see what happens to the Senate schedule, and just where we are, overall: budget issues, health care and everything else."
The Foreign Relations Committee has been closely monitoring the international debate on a new climate agreement, with recent hearings and regular staff trips to preliminary U.N. meetings in Europe. Yesterday, Kerry released a report urging the Obama administration to continue the pursuit of bilateral agreements with China on energy efficiency programs and carbon capture and storage technologies.
Kerry rejects the premise pushed by some lawmakers that the United States should not act until China, India and other major developing countries also commit to the same level of emission cuts.
"We have to do what we have to do no matter what," he said. "I think people understand that. And if you want to enhance China's prospects of signing onto [a treaty], we're better off passing something. That puts pressure on China and India and everybody else. So if your interest is in getting something done, we should pass something."
Although Boxer's EPW Committee is the leader, Kerry may be the Democrats' ace in the hole.
In private, several sources pushing for climate legislation worry about Boxer's chances for success given her reputation as a hard-edged liberal and the failure of last year's global warming debate. Most recently, Boxer has sparked conservative ire for what they say are condescending remarks she made during recent hearings on the issues of race and the proper etiquette for addressing a senator (E&E Daily, June 16).
Kerry, who has never been a member of the EPW Committee, defended Boxer's efforts to date in trying to pass a climate bill. "I think she's very, very inclusive," he said. "She's very boldly reaching out to people. Delegating responsibility and involving people in the process."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said it was "concerning" to have legislators from Massachusetts and California at the forefront of the Senate climate debate -- especially considering the House debate featured Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, committee leaders from the same two states. But she is still giving the senators the benefit of the doubt.
"[Kerry] has been a very respected voice on this issue," Landrieu said. "He has been supporting Senator Boxer's effort to try and build consensus. Both have been very open to me and to my concerns. They're not there yet. But I have found both of them thus far to be very open and willing to at least consider other options and other approaches."
Kerry insisted that he is one worker bee in the bigger push for a bill.
"There are a lot of cooks involved in this, and there ought to be," Kerry said. "That's the only way this is going to work. I've been involved in this for a very long time. But nobody can pretend this is going to be anything but a collegiate, broad-based listening and building effort."
His view on how to be successful in the Senate stems in large part from the House, where Democratic leaders last month scored a narrow 219-212 victory.
For starters, Kerry wants to follow the path of Waxman and Markey winning over senators from heavy industrial states.
"The House got a Baron Hill [D-Ind.] and a Mike Doyle [D-Pa.] and a Rick Boucher [D-Va.] to embrace this," Kerry said. "That represents very similar base issues to what we have to do here in the Senate. And that's what we're going to try and do here."
While environmental groups complain that the House bill catered too much to the moderate and conservative Democrats, for now, Kerry won't talk emission targets or address other decisions to be made in the coming weeks.
"I think the House bill is actually a very good bill, a very strong bill, enormous positive assets, and there may be one, several things we feel we can tweak, make stronger," he said.
At the same time, Kerry said meetings with the House sponsors has yielded useful information about how to make the bill more aggressive. "They encouraged us to do that if we can in various places, even given us some ideas about things they would have liked to have done but weren't able to," he said.
In the end, deals must be cut to win on Capitol Hill, Kerry said.
"We're going to have to find a level of compromise here that works for people," he said, explaining that he too supported legislation with stronger emission limits during the Bush administration. "I know that the House started at a higher level and had to move backward somewhat, but it got the votes, and we're going to have to negotiate here -- obviously intelligently -- and get the votes here."