An already tough climb to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation in the Senate just got a bit tougher with Republican Scott Brown's upset victory yesterday in Massachusetts.
Brown's win takes a guaranteed "yes" vote off the board for advocates of setting up a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions. It also could serve as a warning shot for moderate senators nervous about voting for a sweeping new government program headed into their own tough re-election campaigns.
At his victory rally in Boston, Brown warned that his election puts Democrats on notice that they may pay a political price come November if they do not take a second look as they work through the major pieces of President Obama's legislative agenda.
"When there's trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured there's trouble everywhere and they know it," Brown said.
Climate bill advocates yesterday noted that the Massachusetts special election never ventured into a debate on global warming policy. And given the likely Democratic defections, they added that the issue always required bipartisan outreach to cross the 60-vote threshold, unlike the health care bill that was a central battleground in the campaign to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D).
"The political atmosphere doesn't reduce the urgency of dealing with climate and energy, and the surest way to increase the anger at Washington is to duck the issues that matter in peoples' lives," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in an e-mailed statement to E&E.
"There's overwhelming public support and this can be a bipartisan issue," Kerry added. "It doesn't have to be polarized. Just listen to a conservative like Sen. [Lindsey] Graham or business leaders from across the ideological spectrum. This is the single best opportunity we have for energizing the economy, creating jobs and getting cleaner air, and if you sell those arguments you've got a winning issue."
But many climate opponents reveled in Brown's stunning win and said it marked a repudiation of Obama's big-government agenda, including climate change. Going forward, they said the administration, Kerry and other Democratic sponsors of cap-and-trade legislation will have a hard time convincing moderate fence sitters -- such as Olympia Snowe of Maine and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- that now is the time to be working on this issue.
"A Brown win adds further bricks to the backpack of trying to bring climate change to the floor this year," said Eric Ueland, who served as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Andrew Wheeler, former staff director to Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), questioned how Obama could try to push global warming legislation given that Democrats just lost a Senate seat in a blue-state stronghold.
"Moderate Democrats were already turning away from cap and trade, and they will be even more cautious about such programs this year," Wheeler said.
For instance, Lincoln, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman, is in a tough re-election fight and has not publicly announced her plans for a markup of climate issues under her jurisdiction. And Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has lobbied for a year to take up an energy-only bill rather than combining it with cap and trade, earlier this month announced his retirement at the end of the year.
Frank Maisano, a Washington-based spokesman for several major energy industry interests, said he expects Democratic leaders won't push for a sweeping climate bill unless they can notch a much larger tally than 60 votes.
And even before Brown's victory, Maisano said he had expected Reid would have to scrap the cap-and-trade piece and shoot instead for a stand-alone energy bill that has more support among moderate Democrats and many Republicans. "It really does start to create the impetus on a measure that's collaborative, comprehensive and yet has some support from members on the other side of the aisle," Maisano said.
Environmentalists countered by downplaying the significance of the Massachusetts special election -- and started looking ahead to Obama's State of the Union address slated for Jan. 27.
"This vote was about a lot of things, but clean energy wasn't one of them," said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. "The political roadmap for 60 votes on a climate and clean energy bill is vastly different than the health care bill. The battle for a clean energy and safe climate bill, this Congress will be won or lost in the middle. It will be decided by the centrists on both sides of the aisle, particularly security-hawk Republicans worried about our dependency on oil from hostile nations, and industrial-state Democrats looking to create clean energy jobs."
"We always knew that passing climate legislation would require bipartisan support," added Tony Kriendler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. "With tonight's result that will become more apparent to everyone involved."
The Senate climate bill remains in a holding pattern, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) putting health care, Wall Street regulatory reform and other economic recovery measures at the head of the line. But Reid is also saving time later this spring for a comprehensive energy and climate package that is in the hands of Sens. Kerry, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Reid last night signaled little interest in changing his agenda despite the loss in Massachusetts. "While Senator-elect Brown's victory changes the political math in the Senate, we remain committed to strengthening our economy, creating good paying jobs and ensuring all Americans can access affordable health care," Reid said in a statement. "We hope that Scott Brown will join us in these efforts. There is much work to do to address the problems Democrats inherited last year, and we plan to move full speed ahead."
Energy policy analyst Christine Tezak said in a research note published yesterday that Obama's climate agenda could even benefit if a Brown victory helped to take down the health care bill. "If the health care debate gets derailed, then the Obama administration will need to come up with other victories," said Tezak, a senior research analyst for Robert W. Baird & Co.
"While it is very easy to suggest that Congress may want to throw up its hands and do nothing for the balance of the year, incumbent Democrats will need a win -- not inaction -- to reverse what will be hailed as a significant defeat for their agenda and prove they can govern. There may be greater pressure to salvage an energy and climate package. If health care is shelved, there would be time to address it."
E&E's projection: 'Probably no'
Brown's recent record on the climate and energy front places him among 11 other senators in the "probably no" category should Reid follow through with plans for a vote on the issue, according to E&E's analysis of the Senate global warming debate. Also in the same group: Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), Michael Crapo (R-Idaho), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
During his campaign, Brown questioned the science linking man-made emissions to global warming.
"It's interesting. I think the globe is always heating and cooling," Brown told a voter in Harvard, according to the Boston Globe. "It's a natural way of ebb and flow. The thing that concerns me lately is some of the information I've heard about potential tampering with some of the information."
"I just want to make sure if in fact ... the Earth is heating up, that we have accurate information, and it's unbiased by scientists with no agenda," Brown added. "Once that's done, then I think we can really move forward with a good plan."
The state senator also distanced himself from a 2008 vote that supported entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade pact covering the electric utility industry. Brown's opponent, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, called Brown a flip flopper for the shift, but the Republican replied that he had changed his mind because the program was not working. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) attempted a similar shift during his 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
On his campaign Web site, Brown offered a one-paragraph description of his energy and environmental platform that signaled little interest in working on the Democrat-led climate bill.
"I support common-sense environment policy that will help to reduce pollution and preserve our precious open spaces," Brown said. "I realize that without action now, future generations will be left to clean up the mess we leave. In order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, I support reasonable and appropriate development of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal and improved hydroelectric facilities. I oppose a national cap and trade program because of the higher costs that families and businesses would incur."
National environmental groups largely stayed clear of commenting on the new senator's specific record. But Rob Sisson, the president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, said last night that Brown's win "provides solid evidence that the GOP can rebound quickly if it is willing to reweave Ronald Reagan's big tent philosophy.
"We are confident that Scott Brown will be a constructive voice in the U.S. Senate for responsible environmental stewardship," Sisson said.