Senate Democrats Debate Pushing for Climate Bill

Sens. Kerry and Boxer hope to unveil a cap-and-trade bill by month's end.

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About once a week, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California convene in a room on Capitol Hill, often with colleagues, to discuss their work on climate change legislation. The two Democrats will be the architects of any forthcoming Senate climate bill, which they hope to unveil by month's end.

For many Democrats, getting a climate bill to President Obama has always been a major goal for 2009. But publicly, anyway, it has been overshadowed by the healthcare debate. It has been only 2½ months since the House passed its climate change bill, yet that now seems like a distant memory.

Speaking last week at George Washington University, Kerry dismissed chatter that healthcare reform has killed momentum for tackling climate change. "We are capable of doing a number of different things at the same time, believe it or not," he said.

But he also acknowledged that passing a bill will be difficult, especially in view of how vigorously some Republicans have opposed the president's healthcare plan. "We all know what's coming," Kerry said. "In this atmosphere of fear mongering, we are not going to pass this without a fight." 

Given the level of anxiety among some Senate Democrats, a fight does seem inevitable. Moderate and conservative Senate Democrats worry that the bill the House passed this summer, which has a cap-and-trade provision, may hurt jobs in some regions of the country and some industries in particular, like farming. The Kerry-Boxer effort is expected to have such a provision as well, but centrist Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said last week, "It is not my preference to move on cap-and-trade this year."

She's not the only one. In fact, Majority Leader Harry Reid this week suggested that a cap-and-trade bill may have to wait until 2010, since the Senate is busy with healthcare reform and, in coming months, will try to overhaul the financial regulatory system.

But despite these concerns and intense lobbying from opponents of a climate change bill, supporters have reason to hope. The majority of Americans, according to most polls, continue to support addressing global warming through a cap on greenhouse gas emissions—a level of support that has remained remarkably steady. Meanwhile, the push for action continues to be invigorated by new data. Earlier this month, a new study in Science found that temperatures in the Arctic from 1998 through 2008 were higher than at any other point in the past 2,000 years.

So the challenge for top Democrats is deciding how to rope in the elusive 60 votes required to end debate in the Senate. Reid has said he wants all Democratic chairmen with some say over climate change policy—from the Finance, Foreign Relations, and Environment committees—to complete work on their portions of the policy by the end of September.

Then, aides say, they will have to make an important decision: push ahead with a cap-and-trade bill, or try something less controversial. Last spring, for example, the Senate Energy Committee, led by New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, approved a huge bipartisan energy bill that would kick-start many policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions, like requiring utilities to produce more of their electricity from renewable resources. But it doesn't contain a cap-and-trade system. Ideally, Reid says, he wants to combine Bingaman's bill with the cap-and-trade plan that Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, and Kerry are crafting. But some Democrats say that this fall it might be best to take a less controversial approach and stay away from cap-and-trade.