With Republicans expected to pick up seats in both the House and Senate on Election Day, most advocates of carbon caps say they face a tougher playing field in 2011.
"From an objective standpoint, it looks like what might be the shift in party balances a little bit might make it harder," said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation.
While some climate bill advocates are still working furiously to advance a climate bill this session, others are beginning to plot their strategy for next year after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week stripped greenhouse gas emission limits from the energy package he plans to release today, saying he lacked the needed 60 votes to move a more aggressive bill.
And with the expected GOP gains in the House and Senate, next year's strategy is almost certain to involve seeking more Republican support.
"We're looking at taking on this issue as one that should appeal to both parties," Mendelson said. "I remain optimistic that the issue of climate change as it evolves will force politicians from both parties to deal with it and hopefully that's next session if it doesn't happen this fall."
The Democratic majority in the House is in jeopardy this fall, with many political analysts acknowledging the possibility of a GOP takeover. And while the Democrats' Senate majority seems secure, political analysts expect the GOP to make strong gains in the chamber. There is even a slim chance that the Senate could also switch to Republican control, analyst Charlie Cook wrote last week, although he said the flip is "still fairly unlikely."
House Republicans would need to prevail in 46 out of 73 races that seem to have a chance of changing parties in that chamber, Cook wrote. Republicans are "going to mount very strong gains" in the Senate, he added. But they would need to win at least a couple long-shot races to achieve the 10-seat gain needed to win control of the Senate.
The changing political landscape could cripple efforts to pass a climate bill, said David Bookbinder, who served as Sierra Club's chief climate counsel until his resignation in May. "They couldn't get a climate bill through the Senate with 59 Democratic votes," he said. "What are they going to do when they have 53 or 54?"
But Paul Bledsoe, a strategist at the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy, said the presumption that the next Congress will be less likely to act on climate may not be accurate.
"Sometimes, when one party has large majorities, it can be difficult to put together a bipartisan coalition," he said. "Sometimes, when the party balance is closer, it actually becomes easier to put together bipartisan coalitions because you've got to get some things done."
Bledsoe said there may also be room for compromise on energy issues. "Most Republicans have vilified the cap-and-trade approach, although many supported it previously. The question is, 'Are there other policy measures that could gain broader acceptance within the GOP?' And I think it's a proposition worth testing."
Other groups plan to continue the push for cap and trade -- along with Republican support -- next year.
"While the Senate may have avoided taking up meaningful legislation this year, eventually we are going to need a serious climate and energy policy in this country or suffer the consequences of a warming planet, energy insecurity, subdued innovation and diminished international competitiveness," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Done right, cap and trade should be a recipe for attracting the bipartisan support necessary to pass a strong climate bill."
The center released a report yesterday urging lawmakers to adopt a cap-and-trade program to combat global warming.
Meanwhile, some advocates are still hoping that last-minute negotiations can push some type of climate bill through the Senate this fall, before the shift in political fortunes.
"We're not focusing on next year," said David Doniger, policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "We're focusing still this year on finding a way to get a climate bill." It would be "deeply troubling" for the current Congress not to address climate and energy legislation, he added.
Environmentalists and utility officials are still trying to hammer out an agreement on a bill that would cap emissions from just the utility sector. A working group consisting of industry representatives and advocates of pricing carbon is negotiating behind the scenes to reach a compromise on principles that would be part of a climate bill that caps emissions from only the electric power sector.
The working group floated a discussion draft on key principles Friday -- the day after Reid announced plans to cut emission limits from his energy package. The group includes Duke Energy Corp., Exelon Corp., Dominion Resources Inc., the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (E&ENews PM, July 26).
"We're focused on getting something done this year if we can," said David Brown, a senior vice president at Exelon. Brown said the group plans to meet a couple of times a week moving forward.
"I think that as we do look into next year, the politics probably don't improve," Brown said. "At the same time, the urgency to get some clarity for the utility industry only increases in urgency."
Want to read more stories like this?
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.