While a handful of Senate staffers spent the August recess sequestered on Capitol Hill writing a giant energy and climate bill, senators who will debate the legislation were speaking at town halls and in the media in efforts to strengthen support -- or opposition -- to the sweeping package.
Perhaps more than any other, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson stands out for his message.
Last summer, Johnson questioned his party's leadership for trying to force a floor debate on a comprehensive climate bill that set mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. But in an Aug. 10 editorial, Johnson signaled he was now on board.
"How many times have you heard experts cite the fact that South Dakota is the fourth windiest state, but only ranks 20th in actual installed wind energy generation?" Johnson wrote. "Soon the Senate will consider climate change legislation that could finally help South Dakota to live up to its wind generating potential and capture the benefits of a cash crop that is just blowing across our landscape."
Johnson's words must be music to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat wants to see quick action this fall on the climate bill -- in fact, he has said he wants President Obama to sign a cap-and-trade law before U.N. climate negotiations this December in Denmark.
"This has been a very productive Congress," Reid said at a Las Vegas energy summit this month that included former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. "All the pundits have said we've passed more meaningful legislation than any except for the first six months of the Roosevelt administration. Having said that ... until we do something about health care and energy, we are not going to be able to have the pats on the back that are probably necessary."
But Reid also is aware that he remains short of the 60 votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate, let alone make it through a conference with the House.
Earlier this week, Reid urged Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to help change a state law so that there can be an immediate replacement for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D). Absent the fix, Reid said he would be short a critical Democratic vote as he prepares for debates over both climate change and health care.
Other top Democratic leaders have been circumspect about the chances for action this year.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Bloomberg Television on Aug. 10 that the U.N. climate conference was one driver for fall or winter action on the climate bill.
"The president has urged us to do this so that we'll have credibility at Copenhagen," Durbin said. "And we can move forward on this important issue about clean energy and a clean environment. But I have to be honest with you. As a whip, I count the votes and I count the days in the week, and I look at this rule book in the Senate and think this is not an easy lift. I think we can still do it, but it's a question of timing."
As for the lead Democratic authors of the climate bill, both Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and John Kerry (Mass.) have largely stayed out of the spotlight this month. Boxer, the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been in her home state promoting her new novel and getting ready for a 2010 re-election campaign that likely will feature a top-tier GOP candidate in Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.
Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been home in Boston recovering from hip surgery.
Democratic swing votes
Senate Democrats must convince many of their own if they want a shot at passing the climate bill. That means persuading colleagues like Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. All have said they would prefer taking up a package of energy issues -- minus climate change -- and moving those first on their own.
But other Democrats said over the August break that now is the time to move on a comprehensive package.
"I think we're still a ways away from a final agreement which will lead to a bill," Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said during an Aug. 11 teleconference with United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. "But we have, I believe, at least on the Democratic side, a significant consensus on the urgency of -- the need for a climate change bill -- the urgency to get it done this year, as well as, I think, a good bit of consensus, even region to region, that the House was able to work out accommodating a lot of different interests in their bill."
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, another Democrat seen as instrumental in moving the climate bill, said he planned to back Reid and President Obama in advancing the cap-and-trade bill.
At an Aug. 14 conference in Pittsburgh, Specter said he generally would support cloture -- or cutting off a Republican-led filibuster -- on everything from climate to labor and health care bills.
"Yes, no doubt about those three issues at all," said Specter, who will have an early opportunity to weigh in on the bill as a member of Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee.
Reid also got some warnings over the break from lawmakers who line up with the Democratic caucus.
A top aide to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said his boss had no plans to vote for the Senate climate bill.
"It's worth putting the brakes on this bill, but I would say it's unrealistic to think you can stop it down the line," Tom Michels, Landrieu's legislative director, said at an Aug. 21 forum at Louisiana State University's Center for Energy Studies, according to the Advocate newspaper.
And Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a past co-sponsor of cap-and-trade bills, took issue with media reports that say Democrats may use the budget reconciliation process to pass health care, a strategy that requires only 51 votes. Going this route, Lieberman said, could poison the Senate for other top-tier agenda items, including global warming.
"I think it's a real mistake to try to jam through the total health insurance reform, health care reform, plan that the public is either opposed to or of very, very passionate mixed minds about," Lieberman told CNN on Aug. 23. "It's just not good for the system, frankly, it won't be good for the Obama presidency."
"I think we -- because he has got other fights to fight," Lieberman added. "He has got climate change next domestically. He has got financial regulatory reform. He has got the war in Afghanistan."
On the hunt for GOP votes
With some Democratic defections expected, sponsors of the climate bill are keeping their sights on a small number of Republicans.
Boxer and Kerry hope they can convince Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to sign up for the draft bill they plan to introduce around Sept. 8, the first week back from the summer break. Both have co-sponsored past cap-and-trade bills -- but both also have been under pressure from Republican leaders to oppose large pieces of the Obama administration's agenda.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the party's 2008 presidential nominee, also remains in play.
Before the August break, McCain had few nice things to say about the House-passed climate bill.
This month, however, McCain and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put climate change at the forefront of a four-day tour of Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain national parks.
Speaking with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos during one of the visits, McCain said he still had problems with the House legislation. But he also left open room for negotiations with Democrats.
"The bazaar was opened in the House of Representatives," McCain said. "So obviously, I would have to want to do away with a whole lot of that. But I think climate change is real. And I would be glad to sit down and try to work, as I have in the past, across the aisle, on this issue."
Earlier this week, McCain said bipartisanship may not be so easy following Kennedy's death, telling the Boston Globe there would be "less chances of reaching agreements on major issues, whether it be on national security such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or spending, or on climate change."
Other potential Republican allies in the climate debate include Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. In a Time magazine article profiling Sen. John Kerry, Graham recalled a recent interaction that caught him by surprise.
"He came over to me, and he said he'd like to see if we could find some middle ground on global warming," Graham told the magazine. "I think he's got a very practical approach."
The August break also offered another intriguing Senate shift for the GOP.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) today named his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, as the interim senator to replace retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R).
Crist in the past has been an outspoken GOP supporter of aggressive climate policy. But his decision on who to pick to replace Martinez came with the added complication that the governor is planning to run for the open Senate seat in 2010 -- with a primary against other GOP candidates who have expressed less affection for the global warming issue.
LeMieux's vote in the climate debate will be seen as critical for the Senate bill's passage -- and lobbying is sure to increase in the coming weeks and months. The new Florida senator has almost no record to pull from, though a Palm Beach Post article from March 2007 does quote him talking about Crist's interest in climate change.
"The governor has been doing a lot of reading; he's been studying this subject," LeMieux said. "There might have been a time where the jury was out, but the jury is in now, and we know this is an issue. We can't afford to ignore it and be wrong."
'Every fiber of my being'
Opposition to the Senate Democrats' climate plan also appeared to solidify over the August break.
Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar has worked with Democrats and environmental groups on the issue in recent years. But in an Aug. 14 interview with the Evening News and the Tribune in southern Indiana, Lugar said he was more concerned about the economic implications of the Democrats' plans.
"We do have an obligation to our children, our grandchildren, the Earth to think about these things," Lugar said.
"Once again, for the moment, the debate is not a timely one," he added. "If we take the steps that some members want to take, I predict we're going to have a further recession."
Other key Republicans stayed close to a script they have been following throughout the year.
Finance Committee ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters on Aug. 11 that he would prefer a much broader international response to the climate issue.
"You've heard me say that I'm very cautious on cap and trade unless it comes -- or, let's put it this way, not use the term cap and trade, but use the term global warming, I'm very much thinking that needs to be done on international treaty so that it levels the playing field between the United States and China," Grassley said.
According to the Associated Press, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) told the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association convention during an Aug. 17 speech that the Democrats' cap-and-trade bill had little chance of passing the Senate.
"There is no more devastating piece of legislation for rural America, for the Midwest, for agriculture, for farmers and for small business than this piece of legislation at a time like this economy, bar none," Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said at the same event.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) appeared with Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) at an Aug. 19 farm forum outside Mitchell, S.D. Climate change and health care dominated the meeting, according to the Argus Leader, and Thune sent a strong message about where he stands on the issue.
"I will work with every fiber of my being," he said, "to defeat the bill that was passed by the House of Representatives."
Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.
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