In Twilight of His Career, Warner Now an Environmental Maverick

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

So this fall, Warner and Lieberman, now an independent, introduced a bill that would create the country's first national mandate to reduce greenhouse gases. It calls for cutting the emissions from major polluters to 2005 levels by 2012, and then cutting them to 70 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

The plan calls for a "cap and trade" scheme, in which the government allocates most major polluters a share of a shrinking national emissions limit. Those that seek to pollute more could buy unused emissions credits from others, or from a government auction.

The bill was not written to be radical; it was written to be passed. And already, Warner and Lieberman have made compromises to keep the proposal going.

In subcommittee, for instance, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) won a concession that would help electric utilities in his state, many of which burn coal. Warner and Lieberman got his vote, and the measure passed. A similar perk went to utilities in Virginia, Warner's home state.

Some environmental groups think that Warner and Lieberman have conceded too much. They want tougher goals for 2050, and fewer concessions to industry.

"The bill's a good political compromise right now, but it fails on the science and the economics," said Erich Pica of the group Friends of the Earth. In particular, he blamed Lieberman and Warner for allowing a provision that would allocate polluting businesses a share of free emissions credits. The very valuable credits would effectively be a reward for years of bad environmental behavior, he said.

"This bill gets us part of the way there," Pica said. "And it's not enough."

On the other side of the debate, fossil-fuel groups have predicted that the bill could raise energy prices perilously high. One particular problem: The legislation envisions that coal plants will eventually be able to capture harmful emissions and store them underground. But if that technology does not become available, it could be difficult -- and expensive -- for them to meet emissions caps.

"We're putting ourselves in a position where, if we bet wrong, we don't have an economy," said William Kovacs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

On Wednesday, the bill was passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee after a full day of debate. In the process, it was amended to be more stringent: A larger number of pollution sources were made subject to the emissions cap, pleasing environmentalists who believed too many were left out.

A political cynic might have watched the debate and wondered whether Warner's support really mattered at all. In the end, he was the only one of the committee's Republicans to vote for the bill. Even if he hadn't, the measure would still have passed 10 to 9.

But its supporters say that Warner's dealmaking was crucial to getting the bill this far -- and that his conservative credentials could now give it a chance in the full Senate.

Lexi Shultz of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the bill will need 60 votes to be filibuster-proof in the Senate. Because Democrats control only 51 seats, that means it will need Republicans. It has a few Republican co-sponsors, including Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), she said, and Warner could bring more GOP votes.

"Senator Warner is the key to actually getting this bill to a place where it could pass," Shultz said.

The bill's long-term chances still seem murky. Even if it is approved by Congress, President Bush seems unlikely to approve large-scale emissions limits.

But Warner said yesterday that he is optimistic. When the full Senate takes up the bill, he will push for provisions that help nuclear power -- a move demanded by several senators.

Now almost recovered from his leg infection, Warner was already thinking of the bill as a part of his legacy on Capitol Hill.

"I'd like to have, tucked away in my public record . . . a chapter that had a bit of greenery in it," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company