A small group of lawmakers could help scrap or spare Congress' pending effort to impose a price on carbon emissions, but only two of them, the senators from Maine, appear to hold the "balance of power."
Their support in any effort to stem global warming might seem almost automatic. Sen. Susan Collins stomached a lurching helicopter ride between mountains and slept in an Antarctic hut to get a firsthand view of evidence of abrupt climate shifts of the past. Sen. Olympia Snowe introduced global warming legislation more than 20 years ago.
Together, they represent perhaps half of all Republican senators who have endorsed the idea, recently, of charging businesses fees for releasing carbon, in one way or another.
But the picture is muddier than that, and neither senator's vote is assured. Both have expressed concerns about the climate and energy package being drafted by three of their Senate colleagues. Anxieties about the bill's impact on low-income families and employment and about its creation of a carbon market at a time of public animosity toward Wall Street are weighing on the senators, according to sources, lawmakers and observers.
Snowe, in the reception room outside the Senate chamber, groaned softly last week when hearing about the headlong approach that Democrats appear ready to undertake to move the complex legislation -- yet unseen by senators -- before midterm elections this fall.
It reminds her, she said, of the parliamentary tactics that Democrats used to force through health care legislation last month. She and Collins voted against that landmark bill, making Republican opposition unanimous.
"I hope it doesn't go through the circuitous, backroom, behind-closed-door deals, because all it does is spell trouble," Snowe said of the upcoming climate bill, which is expected to bypass committee deliberation and be sent to the floor. "It doesn't portend a very positive journey for the climate change legislation."
"Hopefully, we can learn from the past," she added. "I think that [was] really the beginning of the trouble with the health care initiative."
Collins, too, has cast cool glances at the measure still being written by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). Sources say she is agitated that her bill, which calls for 20 percent emissions reductions by 2020, has failed to gain the level of support enjoyed by Kerry's group.
"I think that there has been a lot of attention internally here about a proposal that has yet to see the light of day," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who is co-sponsoring the "CLEAR Act" with Collins, said of Kerry's future bill. "It's not frustrating. But I think it's an advantage to have a bill that members can actually read."
Senators 'unique' to carbon effort
Those frictions threaten to complicate the tenuous climate and energy effort, which could affect state economies, big employers like manufacturers, and family utility bills as the nation nears fall election campaigns. Reaching 60 votes in the Senate would be difficult without the support of the Maine senators.
"We need them," Graham said.
Supporters of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman effort expect strong opposition from Republicans, but some Democrats will likely break ranks, too, as they head into re-election battles. It is a shaky year for a majority party that bloomed big during the past two elections.
If it happens, it will likely be in centrist states, where conservative Democrats like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas face opponents from the right. Other centrist Democrats, such as Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jim Webb of Virginia and Kent Conrad of North Dakota, could approach the climate debate with an eye to their re-election bids in 2012.
"Look, they're unique," Lieberman said of the Mainers. "There are three Republican senators who have said definitively that they would in some form support pricing of carbon. Two of them are from Maine. The other is Lindsey Graham. They are going to be important."
They could perhaps be even more crucial. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who abandoned the Republican Party last year to avoid a perilous primary vote scheduled for next month, a move that temporarily gave Democrats 60 votes, said Snowe and Collins "hold the balance of power" in the climate debate.
Lieberman went almost as far. "It would be hard to pass a bill without them, unless you had a real surge of Democratic support and got all 59."
Waxman-Markey 'turned her off'
Maine's nook-and-cranny coastline stretches hundreds of miles, with sprawling fishing grounds on one side and blanketing northern forests on the other. People there tend to be in tune with the environment because of their livelihoods: logging, fishing, tourism and specialty crops like blueberries and potatoes.
So, in Maine, issues like climate change are considered less a political liability, and more an asset. When former Democratic Rep. Tom Allen sought to unseat Collins in 2008, he homed in on her affiliations with the Iraq war and President George W. Bush's tax cuts for wealthier Americans.
"We didn't argue about the environment, because although I believed I had a better record, it was not an area of great weakness for her," Allen said in an interview.
That is because Collins has cultivated her climate credentials. She has traveled to the Arctic, the Antarctic, New Zealand and elsewhere to study evidence of abrupt climate change. Collins helped author a provision on that topic in the landmark piece of climate legislation introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lieberman in 2003. Both she and Snowe broke with their party to support ending debate on that bill, and its successor, offered by Lieberman and former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).
Her newest climate bill, the "CLEAR Act," reflects the nation's rising distrust of Wall Street by limiting the trading of carbon allowances to a much smaller number of businesses than is permitted by Kerry's plan. All allowances, in addition, would be auctioned to polluters for revenue. No one would be getting free permits.
Those provisions grew out her sharp disdain for the horse-trading of allowances leading up to the passage of the House climate bill offered by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), according to a source in Collins' office.
"That really turned her off," the source said, pointing to the removal of a provision that would assign allowances to private forest owners, in Maine and elsewhere, who sequester carbon through conservation practices. Instead, the allowances were shifted to Midwestern farmers, who produce corn for ethanol, in order to capture hard-to-get votes, the source said.
More than 60 votes may be needed
But could Collins bring herself to vote against a climate bill, even one with problematic provisions, given her commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions?
Ask David Hunter, an expert in climate variability who advised Collins as a member of her staff for seven years, until 2007.
"I have to believe that if Kerry, Graham [and] Lieberman come up with an effective bill, Susan Collins would vote for it," said Hunter, U.S. director of the International Emissions Trading Association. "You can't get it done without her."
That raises another question: Can the concerns of Collins and Snowe be addressed before midterm campaigning consumes other business in Washington?
A source in Snowe's office indicated that the senator was uncomfortable with the fast-track approach taken by Kerry's group. New titles in the bill, like a petroleum fee that rises and falls with the price of allowances in the utility sector, have not been examined thoroughly. That provision, specifically, could hike the price of heating for residents of Maine, where more than 80 percent of homes are heated with oil.
Proper climate legislation needs to attract more than one or two Republicans, Snowe believes, according to the source, who said, "I don't think she wants to see a 60-vote strategy."
Snowe indicated support for a slowdown herself. Walking away from the Senate chamber where she has so often tipped the outcome of legislation, she was asked if the climate issue should be taken up next year.
"It may well," she said.