Green groups battling to keep their issue atop Senate to-do list

It's been a rough week for environmentalists.

Green groups had expected to spend the week on the offensive, trying to beef up a comprehensive climate change bill written by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

But Washington can be cruel.

Graham abandoned talks on climate legislation late last week over a heated political debate on immigration, and Kerry and Lieberman shelved the proposal's unveiling -- which had been scheduled for Monday morning -- until they can win him back.

So environmental groups are now scrambling to keep their issue atop Washington's to-do list -- something they thought they had finally achieved after climate change languished for the first 15 months of the Obama presidency as his administration tackled health care, the weak economy and Wall Street reform.


Last Saturday, with the climate bill's fate up in the air, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, pleaded for stronger leadership from President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to salvage "what's been the single greatest priority of the environmental community and its supporters for a decade."

"It's a mess," lamented one prominent environmentalist. "I think everyone is trying to resolve this, but they're also playing hardball in the meantime. ... We're also making it clear [to Reid and Graham] it's unacceptable to take our issue off the table."

Reid tried to ease tensions yesterday when he said he expected the climate bill to make it to the Senate floor ahead of the immigration measure -- no surprise, really, given it's further along in the legislative process than immigration. "Common sense dictates that if you have a bill that's ready to go, that's the one I'm going to go," he said. "Because immigration, we don't have a bill yet."

One environmentalist working on the climate bill insisted yesterday that Reid's remarks were significant nonetheless because he is seldom so definitive with his public statements about the floor agenda.

But Reid also did not relent in his criticism of Graham and of the Senate Republican leadership that he regularly battles. "I don't know why Senator Graham has decided why he wants out of what he's doing," Reid said, while acknowledging moments later that it would not be impossible to take up the climate bill without Graham's vote.

Graham yesterday said he sees things differently. He rejected Reid's overture so long as immigration remains on the table. And he accused Reid and the Obama administration of not taking the global warming issue seriously, otherwise why would they push immigration too, given it has so much political baggage.

"It's a tip off to me they don't care really that much about energy and climate," Graham said last night. "Because if you cared about it, you would not put immigration in the queue in a way to hurt immigration or energy and climate."

Turning the knife a bit more, Graham said Democrats and the Obama administration have turned their back on environmentalists and business officials who have been mobilizing people and dollars for many years on the climate issue.

"I'm convinced that what was once a sincere effort to solve the problem of cap and trade, to replace it with a better product, has now become 2010 politics," he said. "Maybe I'm misreading the tea leaves? But that's what I believe."

He continued, "And I think a lot of people believe what I do, particularly in the energy and climate community. I think a lot of people in the energy and climate community believes that the serious effort you'd need to pass energy and climate legislation has become completely compromised because of putting immigration on the table. Why would you even suggest that if you thought energy and climate was important? Under the best of circumstances, it would be hard after health care. Now financial regulations. We're supposed to go to energy and climate and then immigration. I'm a serious guy. That's not serious."

With the climate bill floundering, Kerry met with several Democrats who have been working longest on the global warming issue, including Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). During yesterday's meeting, the senators fretted over a scenario feared by many environmentalists: Reid may ultimately just move an energy package focusing on renewables and oil drilling, but set no limits on greenhouse gases.

"I worry that energy-only will not give us the carbon caps we want," Lautenberg said after the meeting. "We want an energy bill, but we also want to know that we can put a cap on carbon emissions realistically, get the green jobs that are critical in this whole thing."

Stiff upper lips

For the record, several environmentalists said they are not upset by the events of the past few days. "I don't feel thrown under a bus by Reid and Obama -- nor by Lindsey Graham," wrote Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, in an e-mail yesterday.

Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the fault rests with pretty much all the major players.

"This bus has had a lot of drivers, Lindsey Graham among them," he said. "I do believe part of the story here is that he could not bring along any other Republicans -- partly because today's politics have generally become so toxic and partisan -- and he decided to try shifting the blame to Reid."

O'Donnell added, "Reid, for his part, apparently hoped Kerry and friends could put together critical mass, and that seems to have been a miscalculation."

As for Obama, O'Donnell said Obama erred more than a year ago when he left one of his top pledges from the 2008 campaign trail on global warming. "If I fault Obama's administration, it's for not sticking more to his guns and staying closer to what he campaigned for: 100 percent auction, with most of the proceeds returned to the public," he said, citing legislation reflecting that approach from Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine.).

"Maybe some of my friends will take a fresh look at that concept now that we appear to have had a meltdown," O'Donnell said.

Chelsea Maxwell Clark, a former Senate aide who worked on the 2008 climate bill for then-Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said environmentalists are not the only ones who are being shoved to the sidelines.

"All the stakeholders who have been engaged in the process, investing in action on climate change are impacted," she said. "The stakes are high for everyone involved, and it is really upsetting to see KGL come 'this close' to issuing a bill with that broad appeal only to have their hard work and efforts derailed by a completely unrelated issue.

"In an era where cooperation and bipartisanship are rare, it seemed that climate has risen above the fray, but apparently not," she said.

Conservatives see the debate differently, with Democrats never really putting much of an investment into the climate and energy issue even if a few senators had spent the past six months writing a comprehensive bill.

"I don't believe that climate has been a real priority this Congress," said Andrew Wheeler, a former GOP staff director for Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "I believe that the decision was made between health care and climate last year, and health care won.

"If all of the stars had aligned for climate, then of course they would have passed it. But you are looking at two unpopular issues, health care and energy taxes, there was no way they were going to finish both."

Click here to watch an E&ETV OnPoint presentation of E&E's Darren Samuelsohn discussing developments in Senate climate negotiations.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.