Climate bill faces hurdles in Senate
Deal on nuclear plants offered to court Republicans

By Juliet Eilperin
Monday, November 2, 2009

The climate-change bill that has been moving slowly through the Senate will face a stark political reality when it emerges for committee debate on Tuesday: With Democrats deeply divided on the issue, unless some Republican lawmakers risk the backlash for signing on to the legislation, there is almost no hope for passage.

Like the measure adopted by the House, the legislation favors a cap-and-trade system that would issue permits for greenhouse gas emissions, gradually lower the amount of emissions allowed, and let companies buy and sell permits to meet their needs -- all without adding to the federal deficit, according to projections. But key Republicans are making their opposition clear, even as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has enlisted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) as his most visible GOP ally in gathering support for the bill.

Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee who was initially seen as one of the few Republicans who might consider backing the majority, is helping lead the opposition.

"Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now?" he asked during a hearing last week. "Wouldn't it be smarter to take our time and do it right?"

He wrote Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson twice this summer to ask for a more detailed economic analysis of the House-passed climate legislation, and he has joined the other six Republicans on the committee in boycotting the climate bill's markup, scheduled for Tuesday.

The measure has deeply divided Democrats. With states in the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain West dependent on fossil fuels for energy, many senators are worried about the legislation's impact on industry and consumers.

"I think at the end of the day, the people who turn the switch on at home will be disadvantaged," Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) told CNBC on Friday, explaining why he did not think the bill Kerry had sponsored along with Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) could pass.

So Democratic leaders, with the support of the Obama administration, are trying to sway at least half a dozen Republicans by offering amendments to speed along their top priority: building nuclear power plants.

Graham has suggested provisions on nuclear power and offshore oil drilling that could win his support for a cap-and-trade climate bill. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) has established a bipartisan working group of 17 Senate offices that is close to producing a detailed amendment aimed at hurrying the construction of U.S. nuclear reactors.

But it remains unclear whether that approach will hold currency in the current era of political polarization. One of the top Republicans whom Democrats hope to recruit in this effort -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), whom Graham and Kerry recently buttonholed on the Senate floor -- has voiced skepticism about the legislation.

"A tepid nuclear title isn't enough to get her to support a bad climate bill," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Murkowski.

Graham and Kerry are set to meet Wednesday with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, as well as with Obama's top climate adviser, Carol M. Browner, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to discuss a possible compromise. They are also setting up meetings with colleagues on the issue.

"There is nowhere near 60 votes for a nuclear power bill on its own. There's not 60 votes for a cap-and-trade bill as it's currently constructed," Graham said in an interview. He said combining the two measures is "the only way you'll get to 60 votes."

It is what Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope calls "the old formula for bipartisanship."

"They would agree on a goal, they would not agree exactly on the means to a goal, and they'd come up with a legislative solution that takes elements from both sides," he said.

And Graham, for his part, has become a lightning rod for controversy back home. On Oct. 22, the American Energy Alliance, an advocacy group funded in part by energy companies, launched a radio, TV and online advertising campaign in South Carolina that has cost "close to $300,000" so far, according to the group's spokesman, Patrick Creighton.

Featuring a Halloween theme, the TV commercial warns of "some scary stories coming out of Washington" and says, "The latest is Senator Lindsey Graham's support for a national energy tax called cap-and-trade."

Creighton said the group questions why Graham says a deal will help offshore drilling, which Congress has already allowed.

Groups backing the climate bill came to Graham's defense last week. They aired radio and television ads that featured state Sen. John Courson, a conservative Republican who became concerned about global warming after witnessing the decline of polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba.

"Out-of-state interests are attacking our Senator Lindsey Graham," Courson says in an ad underwritten by Republicans for Environmental Protection, "because he's backing an energy plan that produces more power in America."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he is optimistic that the parties can reach an accord because Americans are not divided along party lines on global warming. "Is there bipartisanship in the country? I think clearly there is," he said.

State lawmakers who came to advise the White House last week on climate saw a different picture. "We looked for any Republican, in any state legislature in the country, who supported a bill," recalled Minnesota state Rep. Jeremy Kalin. "We found not a one."

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