The new year is still seven weeks away, but the 2010 clock is already ticking for advocates of a sweeping global warming and energy bill.
Next November's midterm elections loom large, leaving the climate bill sponsors until about the end of March to notch the 60 votes necessary to pass their bill off the floor and into a conference with the House that would best be finished before the summer.
"Conventional wisdom is that you have until the spring to get controversial issues moving," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a lead co-author of the climate bill that the Environment and Public Works Committee passed earlier this month. "If not, it's difficult to see getting through closer to the elections."
The climate bill's principle architects -- Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- are using the next three weeks to write a legislative outline, with plans to release the blueprint before the United Nations' climate talks Dec. 7-18 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The three senators are also trying to get as much information as possible from key Democratic committee leaders about the direction they would like to go with the climate bill -- preferably before Christmas. And they are sitting down with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are not on the relevant committees to glean ideas for what else should go into the overall package.
"Part of our work will be to blend those together," Lieberman said. The three will then likely present a bill to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for his approval before sending it on to the Congressional Budget Office and U.S. EPA for analysis.
CBO and EPA are likely to take up to five weeks to study the legislation, which is why Kerry and company want to get the outside review process started as soon as possible in order to be ready for a floor debate by the early to mid-spring. "We don't want it to slip into the summer," Graham said last week.
Kerry initially floated the idea of setting deadlines for key pieces of the climate bill to pass through committees, first suggesting Thanksgiving and then moving it back to Christmas. But he quickly retreated after hearing complaints from moderate Democrats. "If you get into an artificial timeline, then you don't give people the opportunity to feel they're being listened to, or their ideas are being processed," Kerry said.
"Let's just work it day to day and we'll see where we are," Kerry said. "Maybe something breaks and you move faster than you thought? Maybe something slows you down because you need another figure or analysis? What I feel confident about, and what I think is important for the legislative tracking, if you will, is every day we're making progress."
With an eye on 60 votes, Kerry and Graham have not been shy about trying to win over moderates, whether it be through negotiations on expanded domestic energy production or discussions of where the Obama administration is willing to bend if it means adding another supporter.
"The only way to get 60 votes in the Senate is to negotiate with the White House at the outset, at the same time" Graham said. "You don't want to have three or four negotiation rounds."
Several senators who E&E lists as "fence sitters" on the global warming bill acknowledge they have been lobbied in the Capitol's hallways and on the floor.
"I'm encouraged by it," said Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "Senator Kerry has certainly been good at reaching out. He's been very serious about reaching out. We've been sharing things with him. We have more to share. He's very good at listening, which is the best way of succeeding around here."
Finance Committee ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) continues to raise concerns about the economic ramifications of a global warming bill, and he insisted last week that he is not participating in any of the negotiations on the climate bill. "But I do appreciate what Lindsey Graham is trying to do in the sense of nuclear and more offshore drilling," he said.
Reid, who faces his own tough re-election campaign next November, has been absorbed in efforts to pass the health care bill by early next year. He also is lining up the rest of the legislative calendar in 2010 to include an economic recovery bill and financial regulatory reform -- items that he sees as responsive to voter concerns headed into the midterm elections.
On climate change, Reid will meet this afternoon with the six committee chairmen who have jurisdiction over the legislation. Among other things, he is expected to weigh in on just how much time the committees should have to complete their work.
To date, only the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee have produced specific language for inclusion in the climate bill. Kerry has said he can move quickly to pass legislation out of the Foreign Relations Committee he chairs. And while Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is absorbed on health care, he has said he too could act fast on his issues.
That leaves the Agriculture Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who has pledged to hold hearings on the climate bill but has shied away from any commitment on markup plans. And Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who last week said that he thinks it would be a good idea to hold a climate markup -- just so long as he is not under any deadline given his current focus on health care.
"There are a lot of ways to achieve results around here," Baucus said. "Generally, respecting the committee process is a lot more sustainable. It's a lot more sound because there are votes, positions are taken."
Kerry said last week that he will be respectful of the committees' work, including the Finance panel where he serves as a senior member. "I can't tell you what Max's decision is on that," Kerry said. "But we'll live with whatever they decide. The main thing is to build the base of appropriate input by everybody and we'll work to do that."
Lieberman said he hoped Baucus would chime in before Reid sends the overall bill on to CBO and EPA for analysis. "The framework won't be whole without that," he said.
EPA and Copenhagen
Several outside factors also are sure to sway the 2010 climate debate.
The White House is reviewing EPA's final "endangerment finding" that declares greenhouse gas emissions a threat to public health and welfare -- a decision many expect to be approved before the start of next month's Copenhagen negotiations. The EPA ruling would also serve as the underpinning for a series of federal regulations on global warming -- starting with new automobile rules that are due just around the same time Kerry hopes to have the climate bill on the Senate floor.
On the international stage, Obama and U.N. officials have said that the Copenhagen negotiations won't end in a final treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, talks on the post-Kyoto agreement will extend into 2010 and perhaps all the way to the next annual U.N. conference slated for December 2010 in Mexico City.
Several senators say they would prefer to have a better idea what major developing countries plan to do under the auspices of the U.N. talks before they sign off on any domestic emission restrictions. "That'd make a big difference," Grassley said. "If we passed a bill that the rest of the world didn't follow, then Uncle Sam could soon become Uncle Sucker and export all of our jobs to China."
Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) appeared last week at a press conference in the Capitol with Kerry, Lieberman and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, where they discussed the intersection between Senate action and the upcoming Copenhagen negotiations.
Pressed for his stance on the Senate bill, Lugar revealed that he was not on the same page as the others.
"I don't want to deter for a moment the enthusiasm of this particular conference," Lugar said. "But I need some benchmarks of how we measure what occurs. I want to know the costs, what's anticipated, what the outline really creates at a time when really my constituents and those of my colleagues are talking principally in this country about unemployment, about the recovery of our economy, of how we make headway in terms of conservation efforts to save money."
Lugar added that he is not participating in the negotiations with Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. "I don't see any climate legislation on the table here now that I'd support," he said. "We really have to start from scratch again, and I think there are ways of doing that."
Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she is willing to work on climate and energy legislation with the three senators "if they can find some middle path that perhaps we haven't pursued."
Murkowski also warned Democrats to be careful as they try to advance the legislative process, a stark reminder of the partisan hostilities that emerged when the EPW Committee approved its climate bill earlier this month without heeding Republican requests for more information about the proposal.
"It depends how it's handled," Murkowski said. "If the way EPW handled climate change is the way it's going to roll out from here, it's doomed."
A few dozen House Democrats -- 24 freshmen from the class of 2008 and 21 sophomores from 2006 -- are poised to be among the biggest advocates for Senate action on climate change next year. That is because many of the lawmakers from moderate and conservative districts voted on the floor in June for the House bill (H.R. 2454) authored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
House Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of campaigning against those Democrats in 2010, especially if the Senate has not voted in favor of the bill too. Here, the Democrats are reminded of a similar scenario that surrounded the Clinton administration's 1993 effort on energy -- widely known as the "Btu tax." That bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate, a defeat that some say helped contribute to the landslide 1994 election where Republicans took over the House after more than a half century of Democratic rule.
"Yes, I think the Btu PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is a factor in this debate," former Vice President Al Gore told E&E earlier this month.
Rockefeller said recently that the "talk on the street" was that an election year cannot be good for passing the climate bill in the Senate, even though he did not agree with that opinion.
"There's some possibility of people saying that it's too controversial a bill in an election year," Rockefeller said. "Which is sort of the opposite of how a democracy ought to work. You go ahead and take your chances on that and you get re-elected. But people's business comes first."
It is not unprecedented for big laws to make it to the president's desk during an election year. Consider the following laws and their date for enactment: the Clean Water Act, 1972; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Toxic Substances Control Act, 1976; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, 1980; Clean Air Act, 1990; Energy Policy Act, 1992; Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, 1996; Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, 1996; Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, 2000; and the Oceans Act, 2000.
Yet even with that history, advocates for the climate bill say they envision a best-case scenario where the Senate passes the bill by March, which then leaves enough time for a House-Senate conference that wraps up by Memorial Day. Considering the politics surrounding the debate, that would give lawmakers a five-month buffer to explain their position to the voters come November.
"I'd imagine most would want to have as much distance between their vote on climate and Election Day," said Chelsea Maxwell, a former senior climate aide to retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).
Reporter Noelle Straub contributed.