The Senate climate debate has largely been in standby mode since June, but Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is ready to kick-start the process with the release next week of a draft bill.
Sources off Capitol Hill say they expect Boxer to start legislative hearings during the week of Oct. 5, with a tentative markup penciled in for the week of Oct. 12.
Of course, much depends on the fate of the Senate health care bill, just how quick U.S. EPA can turn around an economic analysis of Boxer's legislation and whether the chairwoman wants to satisfy key moderates on her panel, which include Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).
Some Democrats say the climate bill actually has some advantages by being stuck behind health care.
"We always talk about silver linings," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said last week. "The fact we've slowed down on health care I think gives us a chance to do a better job on the clean energy front. We need to take advantage of that."
As for specifics, Boxer had been under pressure from her left to ramp up the House-passed bill's 2020 target from 17 percent to 20 percent. "I don't have to prevail on Senator Boxer," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "She knows what's right."
Senate Democratic aides say Boxer has settled on 20 percent, and she will make the case by arguing that the slightly higher target is not that big of a leap given recent estimates from the Energy Information Administration that show U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 6 percent last year because of the recession and a shift away from coal and toward natural gas.
But Boxer also must deal with her right flank. Baucus appears ready to play the same role that his fellow coal-state House Democrats did by pushing for a weaker greenhouse gas emissions limit.
"Yes" votes from Baucus and Specter, another coal-state Democrat, could send a strong signal for other like-minded lawmakers headed toward the floor, where the bill likely faces a GOP-led filibuster. But neither lawmaker is on board yet, and the signals they are sending remain mixed.
Specter last week joined four other coal-state Democrats in writing the White House for its assistance in understanding key trade provisions of the House-passed legislation. And Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, is battling Boxer for jurisdiction over a key piece of the climate bill at the same time he remains immersed in health care.
Democrats working on the climate bill acknowledged that they are constantly trying to piece together a 60-vote coalition on global warming.
"We're not at 60 votes yet," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "But there are a lot of potential senators who could be part of that 60."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), Boxer's lead co-pilot in writing the climate bill, said that the authors are in talks with their fellow Democrats on carbon market oversight, as well as funding for clean coal technology, other low-carbon energy technologies and adaptation.
"There are a lot of different pieces," Kerry said. Asked how often he is counting votes, Kerry replied, "Every day."
And the GOP?
While Senate Democrats have largely kept their focus on winning over their own, Kerry has also taken the lead in direct talks with Republicans. More negotiations with GOP moderates are expected as the bill ripens and as the authors face dwindling prospects of winning over conservative Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
"I'm feeling pretty good about the tactics, the strategy, that as much as possible, we'd like it to include Republicans," Lautenberg said. "The one thing I believe, bipartisanship is a means, not an ends."
As they prepare for their bill introduction, Boxer and Kerry are most likely looking for help from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who currently is in the thick of the health care debate. Down the line, the Democrats are also hopeful they can satisfy other longtime climate advocates, including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
"We think we can get Republican support for this bill," Cardin added. "Not just one senator, but several."
Lugar, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he is open to working with Democrats but dismissed a question on whether Republicans like himself and McCain were reluctant to sign up for a climate bill because it was among President Obama's top domestic agenda items.
"I don't know that we've pulled back," Lugar said. "It's just the formulation from the House I find objectionable on many grounds. Without jumping up and down any further, I think more constructive ways of fighting climate change can be found and I'll be working to find it."
Murkowski, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, drew criticism from environmental groups when she floated an amendment to the U.S. EPA's annual spending bill that would strip the agency's authority to regulate for greenhouse gases from stationary sources for one year (see related story).
Robert Dillon, a Murkowski spokesman, said his boss also has problems with Democrats moving too quickly on the climate bill.
"She wonders why we're rushing because of an artificial deadline because of Copenhagen," Dillon said, referring to a major U.N. climate summit this December in Denmark. "There's a real concern about the rushed timetable. If we do something on climate, we need to do it right the first time."
Comparisons to 1990
Senate Democrats say they would like to get the climate bill finished by Copenhagen, but they also explained that the U.N. conference would not be their make-or-break deadline.
"It's not easy to predict how we'll complete the work this year," Cardin said. "But we're making every effort to get it done this year. We're certainly working toward concrete progress before the Copenhagen meetings. I think we're clearly working with the goal of action this year."
Reid said last week that he wanted to get to the climate bill "as quickly as we can." But he also acknowledged that the legislation may need to take a back seat until early 2010 while the Senate tries to pass other top-tier agenda items, including health care and Wall Street regulatory reform.
The prospect of a Senate slowdown prompted a top European official last week to question whether the United States was keeping true to its international commitments. "I submit that asking an international conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position," said John Bruton, head of the European Commission delegation to the United States.
Todd Stern, President Obama's top climate envoy at the State Department, pushed back in a conference call with reporters late Friday, citing $80 billion in U.S. spending on low-carbon technologies as part of this year's economic stimulus package, as well as EPA regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions.
"The Senate is now doing what the Senate does on large, complex legislation," Stern said. "It has jurisdiction in a number of committees. It is a highly consequential bill that probably affects every corner of the economy. They are also wrestling with major health care legislation. That's the way our process goes. It may be that some people on the other side of the pond don't understand the system that well, but that is the way our system works, and we're pushing ahead."
Democratic leaders won't say for sure when they plan a floor vote on the climate bill, but some aides predicted that April 2010 was the approximate cut-off point because of the politics surrounding the upcoming midterm elections.
Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said he would not rule out a continued climate change debate well into 2010. And he cited the legislative timeline surrounding another memorable battle over environmental legislation: the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments.
There, the Senate voted 89-11 to pass the bill in April 1990 while the House approved its version 401-21 a month later. Conference negotiations lasted four months and concluded with final votes at the end of October, just before the midterm elections. President George H.W. Bush signed the law in mid-November.
"The reality is there's plenty of time to enact a bill into law," said Weiss, who worked as a Sierra Club lobbyist during that 1990 debate.
Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.