Climate chaos reigned on Capitol Hill yesterday as senators battled over the possibility of U.S. EPA regulations on greenhouse gases and the prospects for global warming legislation this year.
Republicans and Democrats alike expressed interest in a "Plan B" approach from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) for capping emissions. The plan would return the majority of the revenue raised from a climate program to consumers through a dividend.
Other moderate lawmakers said the chances for enactment of any bill, regardless of its structure, were either nil or completely unpredictable in light of the election this week of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"It's completely unclear" whether a bill has a chance to pass this year, said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said the chance of a global warming law passing this year was "zero to negative 10 percent." Gregg is considered a fence-sitter on legislation, according to an E&E analysis of likely votes.
Meanwhile, with the climate bill's future murky, a bid by Sen. Lisa Murkowski to block EPA climate regulations gained momentum.
Introducing a so-called "disapproval" resolution on the Senate floor, the Alaska Republican aimed to veto an EPA declaration that greenhouse gases are pollutants, and effectively halt climate regulations for mobile and industrial sources.
3 Democrats backing Murkowski
Murkowski argued that the resolution would prevent a "wave of damaging new regulations" and give Congress more time to debate energy legislation. She has called the threat of EPA regulations the "centerpiece of a highly coercive strategy" to force Congress to move faster than it otherwise would on climate legislation.
Full passage of the resolution would also require House approval and a signature from President Obama in addition to Senate passage -- a trifecta analysts called unlikely. But close observers and the senator herself said she could be within striking distance of winning the 51 votes she needs to pass the resolution in the Senate under a rarely used procedure that eliminates a filibuster threat and allows her to expedite the measure to a floor vote.
If all Republicans voted for her measure -- 35 of the 41 already are co-sponsors -- she would likely need only 10 Democrats to vote "yes." Yesterday, she picked up three Democrats as co-sponors: Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.). Murkowski said she has already been in discussions with a "couple of dozen" Democrats.
Of Democrats who might vote for her resolution, she said, "I would imagine we'll see a great deal of interest in this from other members who come from states where they are seeing very, very high unemployment and rely on things like agriculture, manufacturing."
Yesterday, another moderate, West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, said he hadn't yet made up his mind about his support.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer expressed outraged over Murkowski's move, calling it "unprecedented" and likening it to Congress' overturning a finding that cigarettes are bad for one's health. At a press conference, she and other committee Democrats portrayed the Murkowski maneuver as an assault on established science.
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not to their own facts," said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) about the three Democratic sponsors of Murkowski's resolution.
Some analysts said her progress so far boded well for her effort. "As far as can she get to 51, I think having three Democrats as co-sponsors sends a very strong signal, especially with the administration opposed to the effort," said Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director for the Environment and Public Works Committee who now works for B&D Consulting.
A 'free vote' for Dems?
Daniel Weiss, climate strategy director at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Murkowski could pick up even more support from Democrats. "Especially since senators will know that the odds of passage are slim, it's a free vote. It gives them a chance to curry favor with big oil interests," he said.
The odds of ultimate passage are indeed slim, because Obama would likely veto the measure, experts said. Already, the White House is working with Senate leadership to try to prevent its passage, Gary Guzy, deputy director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said yesterday.
But that reality did not stop speculation about the ramifications of a vote and how it might influence the debate over comprehensive climate legislation.
Any fence-sitting Democrats who vote for the resolution would likely say it is because they want Congress -- not EPA -- to act, said Weiss. That, he said, increases the pressure on them to support a bill and live up to their words.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who co-sponsored the resolution but is also busy brokering a bipartisan climate bill, bolstered that notion. By voting to curtail EPA action, he said, senators will feel more pressure to engage in legislative efforts.
But Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a co-sponsor of the resolution and a climate bill fence-sitter, said the resolution matters more for the message it sends. "Bottom line is, I don't think it affects much of anything. But it will just go on the record as saying that most of us feel that there are other things that we can do to make a difference," he said.
For now, Murkowski, who could force a floor vote, said the timing would not necessarily be linked to progress on legislation. But she also did not rule that out.
"Things change around here. If there should be something groundbreaking that comes about with a proposal out there, I'm not going to foreclose the discussions."
Could the Senate take 'trade' out of cap and trade?
As the Murkowski drama unfolds, there are multiple paths ahead for a climate bill. The House passed legislation last June that incorporates the cap-and-trade model, in which companies and other entities would be forced to hold a limited number of carbon allowances and buy more of them in a marketplace if they failed to meet emissions cuts.
Many senators and environmentalists remain dedicated to that approach -- which is in place in Europe and in parts of the United States -- as the best and most proven way to curb emissions. A cap-and-trade system worked effectively in the 1990s to control acid rain.
White House adviser Guzy said yesterday that many lawmakers on Capitol Hill stand behind comprehensive energy legislation that includes cap and trade.
But senators unsure about the cap-and-trade approach are still pushing alternative options. There is discussion about a "sector only" option that would cap emissions on just utilities, an idea Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is considering.
Then there is the "cap and dividend" model offered by Cantwell and Collins that essentially would take the "trade" out of cap and trade.
Their approach would recycle 75 percent of the revenue raised by a full carbon auction back to consumers as way to buffer higher energy costs (ClimateWire, Dec. 15, 2009).
Yesterday, Murkowski said she had not ruled out becoming a co-sponsor of the Cantwell-Collins bill. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M), the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the concept has legs and that there is strong support for the idea that a substantial portion of funds raised by any cap on greenhouse gases should get returned directly to consumers.
And Graham, who is working with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) to forge a legislative compromise on climate change, said he believes that what will ultimately emerge from the Senate will be a combination of both the cap-and-trade and cap-and-dividend approaches.
"I think you're probably going to have a hybrid system," Graham said.