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Why the Senate climate bill is on life support

April 26, 2010 |  7:20 pm

Monday was to be a launch party for supporters of a congressional push to limit greenhouse gas emissions and boost domestic energy production. Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were to roll out their long-negotiated version of the climate bill the House passed last year, along with endorsements from environmental groups, utility executives and even oil companies.

You know what they say about best-laid plans. On Saturday, Graham scuttled the liftoff (OK, enough with the rocket metaphors) by threatening to walk away from the bill in a dispute with Democratic leaders over the timing of the climate bill vis a vis an immigration bill that Graham also happens to be working on. He's since resumed talks with Kerry and Lieberman about the effort, including a meeting this evening.

The general mood among close observers is that the immigration-climate spat will be resolved, Graham will eventually return to the fold and the launch will be rescheduled. At which point, the so-called Three Musketeers will still have to line up a 60-vote bipartisan coalition to advance the bill in the Senate -- a tough task, as Wall Street regulation backers are discovering anew.

It's a lot of drama for a bill that may never -- OK, one more rocket analogy -- break through into orbit. And if you're struggling to follow along, here's a quick rundown:

*Kerry, Graham and Lieberman spent months negotiating a climate bill with environmentalists, fellow senators and, with particular vigor, industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.

*Their bill would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, through a variety of mechanisms, including a "cap and trade" system for utilities; it included major sweeteners for nuclear power, offshore oil and gas drilling, manufacturers, "clean coal" research and energy consumers.

*All three senators -- and, based on recent public comments, President Obama -- believed the climate bill was next in line, among major legislative efforts, after Wall Street regulation. The senators believed they had a promise on that from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). *Late last week, with the immigration issue heating up thanks to a tough new state law in Arizona, Reid began to suggest he might bump immigration ahead of climate on the crammed Senate calendar.

*Graham, already taking heat from all sides for his aisle-crossing partnerships on climate and immigration, recoiled at Reid's suggestion; Lieberman would later say (on CNN on Monday) that Graham had been promised there would not be an immigration vote this year, even though the South Carolina senator has recently been pushing the White House to engage more on immigration.

*When Graham threatened to bail on the climate talks over immigration, Lieberman and Kerry postponed their plans to roll the bill out Monday.

*The key players here are Graham, Reid and, depending on whom you believe in Washington, perhaps Obama.

Many environmentalists and energy lobbyists cast Reid as the villain, claiming he's jeopardized both bills by trying to score a quick political point on immigration -- essentially, by scheduling a vote on a bill he knows will not pass, thereby firing up the Latino voters he needs in his Nevada reelection this year.

Others question whether Graham, who previously threatened to quit the climate talks over health care and other partisan battles, was looking for an escape from energy and immigration negotiations that have won him few friends among Democrats and antagonized Republicans in Washington and his native South Carolina.

Both camps agree that this climate bill won't go anywhere if Reid and Graham can't work things out -- and soon. Enter Obama. White House staff has worked hard behind the scenes to facilitate the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman process, but some observers say Obama himself must broker a Graham-Reid truce to revive the bill.

*The open secret of the climate bill is that Kerry, Graham and Lieberman still aren't close to securing 60 votes. Graham is the only Republican to sign on explicitly. The senators believe others will join him, along with moderate Democrats, once more details take shape. Many environmentalists agree. Other observers say it's unlikely, even with broad industry support, that the bill picks up enough swing-vote support to survive a filibuster.

*If the negotiations collapse, there's no clear backup plan. Most analysts agree that this is the best chance for a climate bill to pass Congress for perhaps years, because Republicans are poised to pick up seats in November's elections.

Alternatives do exist. The Senate energy committee has passed a bill to spur domestic energy production and mandate nationwide renewable electricity consumption, but environmentalists say the bill doesn't specifically limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced a short, simple bill dubbed "cap and dividend," which would force emitters to buy greenhouse gas permits and refund most of the proceeds to consumers. They've struggled to gain traction, in part because powerful coal-state senators worry the plan would penalize their residents -- forcing the Rust Belt to subsidize the coasts -- and cripple domestic manufacturing.

A pair of Republicans, Indiana's Richard G. Lugar and Ohio's George V. Voinovich, have floated plans to dramatically increase energy efficiency requirements across the economy, cutting emissions, but not nearly as much as environmentalists would like.

Waiting in the wings is the Environmental Protection Agency which is set to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and large factories next year. If no climate bill passes this year, the big environmental fight of the lame-duck Senate session could be a move to block EPA from following through on those regulations.

--Jim Tankersley, in Washington