Senate cap-and-trade boosters still searching for path to 60 votes

This is the second story of a two-part series examining congressional support for major climate change legislation. Yesterday: The House.

The upcoming Senate climate debate isn't shaping up like years past.

Sponsors have not rushed to unveil their legislative proposals in the opening days of the new session. Gone are the loud complaints about White House obstruction. And Democratic leaders have even taken a back seat to the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pledged a first-ever floor debate before the end of the year.

But that doesn't mean the Senate is silent.


Instead, advocates are taking a more methodical approach to the global warming debate, seeking leadership from President Obama and broadening out the committee process to include as many lawmakers as possible.

"It's a live fire exercise, unlike previous episodes where it would die," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). "This now is passing real law with real outcomes and real consequences."

Senate Democratic leaders enter the year with a good deal of experience on climate change thanks to three floor votes on cap-and-trade measures since 2003. The key issues and concerns have been fleshed out so that it is clearer than ever what it will take to cross the 60-vote threshold needed to defeat a near-certain filibuster.

In order to pass a climate bill, sponsors must craft a measure that satisfies both hard core supporters and more than a dozen Democratic and Republican moderates who speak for a cross-section of key industries and interest groups, including labor, agriculture, coal and manufacturing.

According to E&E's Daily latest Senate analysis, 60 votes is within reach on a cap-and-trade climate bill that Democrats hope to send to the White House for Obama's signature.

To start, 47 senators open 2009 either in the "yes" or "probably yes" camp, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).

For the rest, sponsors will work from a group of 21 fence sitters who won't come along without significant concessions. Some of the standout lawmakers in this category include Alaska Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Michigan Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.

There are also 33 Republican senators who are unlikely to vote for a global warming bill of the shape and size that Obama and congressional Democratic leaders envision, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, an outspoken skeptic on the link between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Given the long road ahead, Reid has to be careful not to promise too much. The majority leader has said he would like to pass an energy bill by this summer that establishes a nationwide standard for the production of renewable energy.

Beyond that, a Reid spokesman said last week that his Senate climate strategy still requires input from the Obama administration and Democratic committee leaders. The Democrats' "go slow" approach is a byproduct of last year's climate debate, which bogged down on the Senate floor amid complaints that lawmakers from both parties were being asked to consider a costly proposal that they had little to no role in writing.

"Our last bill was our trial run," Boxer told reporters last week. "It has some fabulous things in it. It also got a little bit weighted down by some of the details in it. And we're starting afresh. We'll take the best of it."

Satisfying the 'Gang'

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that no group will be more important to the success of the next Senate global warming bill than the "Gang of 15," a collection of moderate Democrats from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West who say the climate debate to date hasn't taken their interests into account.

"I think we'll be the fulcrum upon which the policy will balance, one way or another," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a member of the group.

"I think it's an important group," added Stabenow, another member of the group. "I wouldn't characterize it as make or break. But I'd say we're an important group of people that understand and are very serious about doing something. For us, the impacts in our states if it's done right or wrong, are very serious."

Originally, it was 10 Democratic senators who spoke up with concerns about the climate bill brought last summer onto the floor, including Stabenow, Levin, Brown and Bayh, as well as Sens. John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jim Webb of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

The group later expanded to include Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Former Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado was the 16th member -- he is now Obama's Interior secretary.

Staff to the newly dubbed "Gang of 15" have been meeting informally for several months to work through some of the most complex issues tied to a climate bill, including international competition, technology, cost containment and offsets. But they have not made any significant progress. "I don't think there's been any effort to coalesce around any specifics that I'm aware of," Bingaman said last week.

Most lawmakers and outside observers say it will be up to new White House team to resolve some of their core concerns. "A lot of people in the Senate are waiting for proposals to deal with this issue from the Obama administration," said Geoff Brown, a senior officer at the Pew Environment Group.

Since his arrival in the White House last month, Obama has focused almost entirely on the U.S. economy. But the president also mentioned global warming in his inaugural address and then a week later signed a pair of presidential memoranda on motor vehicle fuel efficiency.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod said last week that cap-and-trade legislation remains one of Obama's priorities, though he was far from ready to go into specifics. "He's spoken of this," Axelrod told E&E Daily. "It's something he supports. We're taking one step at a time here. But it's something he's committed to pursuing."

Axelrod also welcomed Democratic leaders' pledges for movement this year on cap-and-trade legislation. "We think that it's healthy that there's so much momentum in Congress to address this problem," he said. "It's long overdue."

So far, House and Senate Democratic leaders do not appear to be coordinating their climate efforts. Bingaman and Boxer are planning separate climate and energy bills, while House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is planning one comprehensive package that deals with both issues.

"My experience is neither body pays much attention as a strategic matter to what the other body is doing," said David Conover, a former Republican staff director on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "The committees establish their agenda and they move legislation when they think they're ready to move it and when members are comfortable enough to do so."

The return of McCain-Lieberman

The upcoming Senate global warming debate will feature both some familiar and new faces.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), for example, are writing their third installment of global warming legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with an extra emphasis on building new nuclear power plants. Both lawmakers are outside the core group of Democratic leadership. But the duo's long track record on the issue gives them legitimacy, and McCain's status as the former Republican presidential nominee carries weight with an Obama administration interested in working across the aisle.

"We want to create a bipartisan ground here in favor of climate change and hopefully we'll build around it," Lieberman said. "These proposals always change as it goes on. The important thing is we want to get some ideas out there."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who cosponsored a climate bill in 2007 with Bingaman, now has a seat on the EPW Committee, putting him in prime position to influence the policy before it even reaches the floor. "I'm anxious to legislate in the field," Specter said. "I want to be sure what we propose is something which is attainable."

Another new entrant to the Senate debate is Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a freshman who joins the EPW Committee majority. A former congressman, Udall supported a cap-and-trade bill with a "safety valve" that would have limited industry's costs for complying with a new climate policy.

Udall said last week that he has changed his mind on the cost containment issue, which is highly unpopular with environmental groups. "That was a bill that was designed so President Bush would sign it," he said. "And the circumstances have completely changed. Don't expect me to be introducing that bill again. I'm going to be working with the committee and working with our chairman and learn from what happened in the Senate the last time around."

Several Republicans are also poised to have vocal roles in the climate debate.

Inhofe, fresh from his re-election to a fourth term, remains staunchly in opposition to Boxer's climate plans. But Oklahoma senator said he expects the biggest battles to come if and when the global warming bill reaches the Senate floor. "It doesn't matter with the committee because it's so stacked anyway," he said.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who will retire at the end of the 111th Congress, maintains that he wants to work on a climate bill, though his past overtures have not been met with much interest from Democrats. "We beat the last climate change bill," Voinovich said. "We worked hard on it. I'd like to get the same kind of energy to get a responsible bill."

Another Republican with ideas about how to write a climate bill is Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. In last year's floor debate, Corker questioned the size of the cap-and-trade proposal. This time around, he says he may be able to write an alternative that returns the climate policy's revenues to taxpayers and can win support from a large number of Democrats and Republicans.

"I think there's a way to do it," Corker said. "My guess is, there have to be 35, I'm just making up numbers, there have to be 35 Democrats that are perfectly willing to do something that's really a market-based system, and my guess is Republicans would join in if they knew the revenues were being returned."

Even with Corker's interest, some longtime Capitol Hill observers are skeptical that there will be droves of Senate Republicans signing up for the next climate bill.

"The reality is in the Senate, you have a supermajority hurdle to clear," said David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "And we have a lot of members in the Senate whose world view on climate is one that was formed during the Bush administration. You can't change years of disinformation overnight."

Click here for E&E Daily's analysis of the Senate climate debate.

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