Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) both say there is little to read into the fact that Kerry is listed as the lead sponsor of the global warming bill the pair unveiled Wednesday.
But perceptions are another thing, and there are certainly reasons for why Kerry got top billing ahead of Boxer, the chairwoman of the committee with lead jurisdiction over the climate change agenda. The decision also leaves some observers asking who will be in charge moving forward.
In interviews this week, the senators cited Kerry's experience in the global warming debate for some two decades, as well as his work on foreign policy and military issues.
Several sources on and off Capitol Hill said Boxer's deference to Kerry speaks to how the lawmakers are trying to frame the climate debate around national security.
"That'd not be a theme that'd wear well with Barbara Boxer, she's not at all associated with that issue," said one industry lobbyist. "To the extent they want to make this bill about something other than just environmental issues, you need other voices. He's a good one for security."
Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said he is not convinced it even matters who has primary sponsorship. "I don't put much stock in whose name goes first," he said. "I don't think that's really what's important."
Yet Weiss also ticked through all the reasons for why Kerry brings strong credentials to the forefront of what will be a fierce debate, from his relationships with GOP lawmakers like Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and John McCain of Arizona to his seniority on the Finance Committee. And there is also the work on national security and military matters.
"This is an area of expertise of his that is one that he can speak to very credibly," Weiss said.
Kerry has most recently been pushing the security platform as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a post that became available when Joe Biden left the Senate in January to become vice president.
Getting out of the line of fire?
Boxer made the decision this summer to have Kerry's name first on the bill, according to both senators.
"I think she was being very thoughtful and deferential to the years I've put into this effort," Kerry said yesterday. "And I'm grateful to her for her willingness to recognize that. This is a shared responsibility."
Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recalled last year's Senate climate debate where she initially stepped aside to let Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) take the lead in crafting legislation.
"I'm not an egotist when it comes to my name on a bill," she said. "The important thing is to get it done."
Neither senator made a big splash out of their decision. The only public statement on who was the lead sponsor before this week's introduction came at the end of August, when the two senators issued a joint statement announcing they would delay the release of the "Kerry-Boxer" bill until mid-to-late September.
But while Kerry's name is first, Boxer's committee staff took the lead in writing most of the 821-page bill unveiled earlier this week -- albeit after adopting many ideas included in H.R. 2454, the House-passed climate proposal.
And Boxer and her staff are also expected to remain on point as the core pieces of the legislation get rewritten in a chairman's mark that will be offered before her committee votes on the bill.
"Ultimately, you've got to talk to Barbara Boxer to do anything with this bill," the industry source said. "She's got the pen."
Aides for both lawmakers would not directly address the disconnect. But several sources explained that it is not uncommon on Capitol Hill for committee staff to do the spade work and then hand off the notoriety to others. It's also sometimes the case that the lead committee of jurisdiction has nothing to do with a bill that reaches the Senate floor. Consider 2003 and 2005, where McCain and Lieberman forced floor votes on a climate bill while the chairman of the EPW Committee was Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an outspoken skeptic on global warming science.
Both Boxer and Kerry say they are sharing responsibilities as they go forward with committee action, as well as in talks with more than a dozen moderate and conservative Democrats and Republicans who will be needed to get 60 Senate votes. They also could welcome a GOP senator onto their side if it meant their bill had a bipartisan nameplate. Furthermore, four other committee leaders will have a seat at the negotiation table: Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
"And by the way, it's going to be a Reid bill on the floor," Boxer added, referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Asked how senators typically decide who is listed first as a lead sponsor, Bingaman replied, "I'm sure all kinds of considerations go into it. I think it's different for every bill."
Another factor that some think went into Boxer's decision centers around criticism over her ability to work well with moderates and conservatives.
Several Senate Democrats bristled at how Boxer handled preparations leading up to last year's floor debate on the climate bill. While Lieberman and Warner were the lead co-sponsors, many questioned whether Boxer had readied suitable responses to the steady line of Republican attacks that the bill would raise gas and energy prices during a recession. They also complained that Boxer did not release text of the final proposal, which she took the lead in writing, until too late in the process.
Last year's debate ended with a thud after Republicans forced a full reading of the 492-page bill, forcing Democratic leaders to yank the measure off the floor after losing a cloture vote, 48-36. Afterward, they said they would open the next round of climate legislation to the other committees.
While Boxer has repeatedly said this move would open the door to other opinions from key lawmakers, one former EPW Committee Republican aide said the chairwoman appears to be "tasking others to run interference."
"You've got to question how did a chairman get herself into a position to have to do that?" the former staffer added.
Boxer has also faced criticism this year on other fronts for her handling of the global warming issue. Republicans have repeatedly challenged her for not holding any hearings on the core features of the climate bill. While Boxer has promised to dive into the details later this month before going into markup, many are skeptical they will be anything but an attempt to garner favorable media coverage.
"Those hearings don't make great headlines," the former GOP aide said. "They're nitty gritty, hard work. What's a press release you put out after a hearing on the economics of allowance allocations? It can teach you a lot. It can give you a lot of information to get the job done. But it doesn't really attract the cameras, does it?"
Jeff Holmstead, the U.S. EPA air pollution chief under President George W. Bush, said he questions whether Democratic leaders will put Boxer in the limelight should the debate proceed to the floor.
"Will she be the lead vote getter?" Holmstead asked. "There's a lot of people who say that if that's the way Reid proceeds, that doesn't necessarily bode very well for passage of the bill."
On Capitol Hill, Boxer does have her fans. "I'd love Senator Boxer's name to be at the top of the bill," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), before adding, "I don't know what that's all about."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of Boxer's EPW Committee, insisted that the move was all about teamwork.
"What was presented today wasn't the committee bill," Cardin said. "It was a bill from the two leading architects of the global climate change energy bill. That's how we see it. We see both as the leading figures in the U.S. Senate on this issue."
Kerry's new role
As for Kerry, the bill's lead sponsor did not waste any time in asserting himself into a debate that will require both deft negotiation skills and a quick trigger finger.
After Wednesday's Capitol Hill rally to unveil the bill, Kerry signaled to reporters that he sees several areas that are open to compromise, from emission allowances to targets and the threat of U.S. EPA climate regulations.
Kerry's office also unloaded on Republican critics within an hour of their event with a press release titled: "REBUTTAL TO THE FIRST - BUT SURELY NOT THE LAST - MISLEADING DISTORTION OF KERRY-BOXER BILL."
Kerry's campaign office was also busy, firing off an e-mail to supporters accusing opponents of "saying the legislation does one thing when it does the exact opposite -- the usual game of mislead and confuse."
The fundraising pitch added: "We've seen this movie before. And we're not going to let them get away with it. Within minutes, we pounded back with the facts, fighting back with the truth.
"But I've been in this game long enough -- I've seen this movie before -- that I know the truth isn't enough. The truth needs help to fight back," the letter states, alluding to the "swift boat" controversy of the 2004 presidential election.
Even before this week, Kerry had been active in the climate debate, holding dozens of one-on-one meetings with senators on the bill, along with sit downs with many leading foreign and administration officials, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
In March, Kerry hosted a strategy dinner at his home in Georgetown that included Obama's top energy aide, Carol Browner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House science and technology adviser John Holdren.
This summer, Kerry insisted that he would not be a risk to the climate bill as he meets with swing-vote Democrats and Republicans, even lawmakers from states that he lost to President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.
"This is legislating, this is not a campaign, this is not a race for the presidency," Kerry said in July. "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?" (E&E Daily, July 28).
Rockefeller, who on Tuesday issued a sharply worded statement against the Kerry-Boxer draft bill, said he would take a pass for now on whether Kerry was the right senator to be at the front of the negotiations. "I can answer that better as the process moves along, see if he does it," he said.
Several other senior Democrats wanted to stay far away from interpreting Boxer's decision to give the top spot to Kerry.
"I have no thoughts on that," Baucus said. "I've learned long ago not to get into those kinds of discussions."
"It's between the two of them," added Bingaman. "They obviously feel comfortable with that arrangement and that's fine with me."
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.