When the Senate debated climate change legislation earlier this decade, it generally was understood the bill had no chance of becoming law.
Floor debates in 2003 and 2005 came about after high-profile senators forced votes to score political points and embarrass the George W. Bush administration. Just one committee wrote last year's cap-and-trade bill, which crashed on the floor and became a political liability for Senate Democrats.
This time around, Senate Democrats are trying another approach. They have set out to work as a team, with six separate committees trying to write language that can build ownership among influential swing votes well before the floor debate begins.
"To me, the more committees that are involved, the happier I am, because you get more and more colleagues that get to understand it, that get to be part of it," Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told reporters last week. "The more colleagues that play a role, the better."
It was Boxer's committee alone that approved the climate bill before last year's floor debate. The process was not smooth, and moderate Democrats howled in protest that she had not conducted enough outreach on such a momentous piece of legislation.
This year, the EPW Committee is working alongside other powerful panels: Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources, Finance, and Foreign Relations. For vote counters, that means any number of fence-sitters -- such as Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) -- will have a crack at the climate bill in its earliest stages.
"There are issues that the senators are going to want to work through on their own, and this process allows that," said Mark MacLeod, special projects director with the Environmental Defense Fund.
There is no guarantee that the committee work will actually lead to the 60 votes needed to defeat an expected Republican filibuster. For instance, things have not gone as smoothly as Democrats hoped on health care, another of President Obama's top agenda items.
"I hope it'll make them more open to a solution," said Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "It hasn't worked that way on health care. Not yet."
In the House, Democrats won narrow passage of their climate bill last month primarily by writing a bill that reflected the regional differences of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and to some degree the Obama administration, also took the reigns on the bill, working over members one-by-one in the closing hours before the 219-212 vote.
While Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) effectively blocked the legislation for a few weeks to win concessions for farm state lawmakers, other committees largely punted on jurisdiction save some last-minute pieces included as part of a manager's amendment package.
Back across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will be in position by late September to work through all of the different climate bills that clear the committees. At that point, he plans to open up his door to lawmakers who still have concerns and demands, following a pattern many remember in 1990 when then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) helped construct the last major set of Clean Air Act amendments.
"That's what my responsibility is, so that's what I have to do." Reid told E&E last week.
It's all about Max
Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) presents the biggest challenge in the Senate climate debate.
Baucus signaled that he wanted a piece of global warming bills that passed out of the EPW Committee under Democratic majorities in 2002 and 2008 -- narrowing in on language that would distribute the cap-and-trade program's emission allowances. But he later deferred, figuring that neither bill had much chance of becoming law.
This time around, no one thinks Baucus is bluffing.
Lobbyists and Senate staffers cannot help but notice that the Montana Democrat has beefed up his climate, energy and trade team, bringing as many as 10 aides into various meetings on the legislation. Other lawmakers have joked that they may want to find a few ringers to look intimidating too.
Baucus, already the focal point on the health care bill, has said he plans to mark up climate provisions dealing with the allocations and trade. But it is not yet clear if he will go before Boxer, or wait until the EPW Committee passes the core elements of the cap-and-trade measure first.
Either way, Baucus stands to play a critical role. After all, he is also the most senior Democrat on Boxer's committee. And he is a leading centrist Democrat with a voice that carries tremendous weight in the leadership ranks.
"Without him, you don't have a climate bill," said one former Senate Democratic aide tracking the legislation.
It is far from certain how the other committees will handle the climate bill, minus the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which finished its work last month.
Rockefeller, the chairman of the Commerce Committee, said last week that he planned to mark up a climate section, and off-the-Hill sources say the West Virginia Democrat has his eye on significant incentives for carbon capture and sequestration technology that would benefit his home state's coal industry.
Aside from some small bits on international forestry, technology and adaptation, Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry's mission is to work with moderate Democrats and Republicans from across the caucus.
Aides insist that the Massachusetts Democrat has a deep knowledge of the climate issue thanks to his work in the Senate, as well as his own 2004 White House campaign that took him to many of the Midwestern and Rust Belt states that are home to fence-sitting lawmakers.
"I'm finding there's a desire by the people we're talking to to want to find a solution," Kerry told reporters last week, citing meetings he has held with Brown, Lincoln, Pryor and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
As for the Agriculture Committee, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) holds a hearing today in his quest to write key pieces of the bill. But Harkin has also danced around the question of whether he will hold a markup or kick his recommendations over informally to Boxer's EPW Committee.
On the surface, Boxer's EPW Committee would appear to be a cake walk for moving a climate bill.
"We have a pretty distinct majority, so if we can't, shame on us," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), referring to his party's 12-7 edge in the committee.
Boxer, who last year relied on Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) for help in moving a bipartisan global warming package, faces pressure from all directions.
On her left, Boxer is hearing demands from Whitehouse and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) to tighten up the emission limits beyond the House-passed bill's 17 percent target for 2020.
"Anything we can't do goes off the table," Whitehouse said last week. "The move on the Senate floor will be rightward. And therefore, we've got to do our job to keep as many possibilities open for the floor as possible."
Yet other Democrats on the committee, including Baucus and Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), will push Boxer toward the middle. "My hope is the legislation when it leaves our committee will be centrist," Carper said.
As for Republicans, they expect Boxer to buckle under the pressure.
"If you just go through the members of the committee, and you figure it out, all of them are going to have some major problems," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). "So they're going to have to try and satisfy them. And in the process of trying to satisfy them, they're going to lose support from the environmental groups that want us to throw the gauntlet down and take a leadership role."
Boxer last week said that everyone will have to compromise in order to craft a bill that could pass in the Senate. "I am going to have to walk away from some things I believe should be in the bill," she said.
Reid's 'difficult job'
Some Republicans expect the committee process will help to derail the climate bill.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a member of the Agriculture Committee, urged Harkin and ranking member Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to play an even greater role in slowing down the climate bill compared with the House, where Peterson raised objections but ultimately went along for the ride.
"I hope that both he [Harkin] and Saxby take the climate change bill by the horns and corral it," Roberts said.
Others see Boxer writing a bill that has no chance of making it off the floor. "Last year, the committee produced a bill, got to the floor, never got anywhere," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of the EPW Committee. "I'm expecting the same thing this year."
Democrats also must deal with dissent from within their own ranks.
Earlier this year, Bingaman said he would rather see the Senate tackle energy on its own and then come back to climate. Bingaman last week was not as specific, saying that that "there are a lot of complex questions that obviously are raised by cap-and-trade proposals."
"We're still in a learning process in most committees," he added.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a senior member of the Energy Committee and also the chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, was more blunt. Moments after hosting a DPC luncheon with three corporate executives who support cap-and-trade legislation last week, Dorgan took to the floor for about 10 minutes to question efforts in the Senate to move on climate via the House-passed bill.
"I know a lot of work has gone into that legislation, but my preference would be that we start to explore other directions," Dorgan said, citing concerns about speculative trading in the carbon markets.
For Reid, there are many tough decisions still to come -- and many Democrats are not envious of their leader's position.
"I assume he's waiting to see what the various committees come up with before he makes any judgment," Bingaman said. "He's got a difficult job packaging it all up and figuring what the procedure ought to be that gets us to a positive conclusion."
Asked about the path to 60 votes, Reid acknowledged he will have plenty of work to do at every stage of the process. "I've got six chairmen to deal with for beginners," he said.
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