In Twilight of His Career, Warner Now an Environmental Maverick
Friday, December 7, 2007
There are easier ways to retire than this. John W. Warner was flat on his back -- his coat was buttoned, his pocket square was perfect, but he was totally horizontal on a leather recliner wedged among his office's antique chairs.
Warner had a leg infection that prevented him from sitting down. He was looking at the ceiling and talking about climate change.
"We've got to have a law," he said in an interview last month. "And let's get on with it."
This is how Warner (R-Va.) is ending three decades in the Senate: with a potentially historic, but possibly fruitless, drive to pass a national law on greenhouse gases. A recent convert on the issue, he is trying to sell colleagues on a bill that would reduce emissions over 40-plus years.
The bill has enemies among both environmentalists and business interests. But so far, allies say, Warner's conservative credentials and willingness to make deals have helped give the bill momentum. On Wednesday, it passed a Senate committee, the first greenhouse-gas bill to make it that far.
"He's taking on an issue that's going to be very costly and hard," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Thurber contrasted Warner's exit with the retirement of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who said last month that he would leave for the private sector.
"You compare it to Lott, who seems to be searching for a job," Thurber said. Warner "is a totally different kind of person."
Warner, first elected to the Senate in 1978, has said he will not seek a sixth term next year. On Capitol Hill, he has been known for a focus on the military, for a pervasive courtliness -- his formal bearing and memento-bedecked office define the high senatorial style -- and for an occasional maverick streak. In 1994, for instance, he was the target of Republican anger after he refused to back Oliver North for Virginia's other Senate seat.
On climate change, though, Warner had not been a maverick.
In 2003, he voted against limits on greenhouse gases that had been proposed by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, then a Democrat, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). In 2005, when the idea resurfaced, Warner voted "nay" again. Both measures ultimately failed.
But Warner said his thinking changed earlier this year. He decided that the U.S. military might face new and dangerous threats if the world were disordered by the weather.
"I began to think, 'This thing really does impact on national security,' " Warner said. And once he decided that, he said, "you've got to get off the bench and get in the ballgame."