Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman sought to control the damage to their climate legislation yesterday, hours after the last-minute withdrawal of the bill's only Republican sponsor derailed an anticipated unveiling and prompted an urgent meeting in Lieberman's home on Saturday.
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, consulted with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada Sunday morning about Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) announcement to abandon the carbon-cutting legislation, a move that came as aides were rushing to finalize the bill before its introduction Monday.
That conversation came after Kerry hurried late Saturday to Lieberman's home, where the Connecticut independent had taken a rare telephone call earlier on the Jewish Sabbath from Graham, who said he was about to publicly announce his withdrawal because he believed that immigration reform could suffocate the fragile climate effort.
Those whirlwind conversations carved out an optimistic message for moving forward, with both Kerry and Lieberman vowing publicly that hope remains alive for passing a bill this year that places a price on carbon. Buoying those assertions is the fact that all three senators -- Kerry, Graham and Lieberman -- talked extensively yesterday.
"This thing is nowhere near over, and Senator Kerry is incredibly committed to this fight," a Senate aide said in an e-mail. "We always knew the road to 60 was going to be a tough one, but we're working closely with the [White House] and Leader [Reid] and he has assured Senator Kerry and Senator Lieberman that our energy/climate bill will happen this year."
But that message belies serious concerns among participants and observers who believe the effort veered backward when Graham, the target of criticism at home, stepped out of the spotlight. The fear is that other Republicans could point to his departure, following months in the legislative trenches, as a reason for voting against the measure.
If it gets that far.
"If we don't have bipartisan support, we're not going to have a bill," said David Hunter, the U.S. director of the International Emissions Trading Association and a former climate adviser to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "After putting all this work into producing a bill, I don't think other Republicans are going to want to step into his shoes."
Timing could be critical
He and others believe that a powerfully focused effort by the White House could propel the climate measure forward. That would likely require a clear movement away from immigration reform, a popular issue for Democrats in an election year and the reason Graham gave for shedding the climate effort.
But even that might not convince Graham to rejoin the controversial process. He has been criticized in South Carolina for siding with Democrats on a variety of issues, including bank bailouts, carbon pricing, and past efforts to provide citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.
"I don't know whether Senator Graham can be persuaded to continue to work on this," Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former assistant secretary of state, said of the climate effort yesterday. "I really think that without him, the chances [of passing a bill] are much diminished. And they weren't terrific to begin with."
The timing of Graham's departure cuts deep. It comes after supporters cleared a string of delays that prevented the bill from being introduced, until concessions could be made to pull industry groups in as supporters, or at least as noncombatants. Some groups agreed to keep their fingers off the "reject" button until they had assessed the legislative language, which the senators have sought to keep secret.
With the bill's celebratory introduction now canceled, it's unclear how utilities, manufacturers, oil refiners and other businesses will proceed.
"We committed to the senators we would not make a judgment until we had a chance to read the details, which we haven't seen," Paul Schlegel, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said when asked about Graham's decision. "It certainly is going to decrease chances, you would think, for that [bill] going forward."
Confluence of 'gas tax' and immigration
Things got rocky more than a week ago, when conservative lawmakers and cable channels began focusing on the bill's regulation of transportation emissions. Critics began calling it a "gas tax," prompting Graham, Kerry and the White House to deny those assertions. Changes to the bill's fee on the carbon content of transportation fuel ensued.
"I know of no proposal that has a gas tax," David Axelrod, President Obama's adviser, said outside the Capitol on Thursday.
Then immigration intervened, as Reid and the White House promoted the notion of tackling the politically boiling issue of addressing undocumented workers before midterm election. Because Graham is one of the few Republicans who have supported efforts to provide citizenship to immigrants living in the United States illegally, the announcement enhanced Graham's exposure to controversial issues.
"I understand why he's upset," Chelsea Maxwell, a former climate adviser to retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said of Graham. "Nothing that's on the calendar is easy, and then it seems with each bill that passes there is decreased bipartisanship, so are you dooming climate and energy from the start by coming off a contentious health care debate, having a contentious financial reform debate, having a contentious immigration debate, and each day you're getting closer to the election."
Despite those hurdles, Maxwell thought this year might have been the Senate's best chance to pass carbon pricing. That's unlikely now.
"It just feels to me, and to a lot of people who have been anticipating this moment, like the end is either near or here," she added.
Others believe the reasons for Graham's departure have not been revealed.
"I think the back story may actually be that he realized he's not going to get any Republican support for this thing, and he's going to have egg all over his face," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "They gave him all these [industry] concessions, and if he couldn't bring another Republican vote, then the whole thing has been a fiasco."