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Experts weigh chances of Kerry-Lieberman energy bill

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Sunday, May 16, 2010; A13

Sens. John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman introduced a long-awaited climate and energy bill on Thursday. The Post asked environmental and policy experts to assess climate legislation's chances. Below, responses from Phyllis Cuttino, Frank O'Donnell, John W. Rowe, Dan Schnur, Kenneth P. Green, William Antholis and Strobe Talbott.

JOHN F. KERRY (D-MASS.)

Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee

Conventional wisdom says that Congress ducks tough choices in election years, predicting at best a watered-down energy bill. The same doubters said health reform was dead until we passed it. They forget that Congress passed the Clean Air Act in an election year.

Two Congresses ago, 38 senators voted for climate legislation. Last Congress, 54. There are 59 Senate Democrats. With several Republicans looking at the American Power Act with fresh eyes, 60 votes are achievable.

This year is also different. Industries that successfully opposed previous legislation stand with environmentalists behind this one. In part, that is because if Congress doesn't legislate, the Environmental Protection Agency will regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. The House has already passed a bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the Senate must act. President Obama has endorsed our legislation and doubled down on legislative victory. And the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has underscored the stakes.

Al Gore and I held the first climate-change hearings 22 wasted years ago. Time and again, we've said, "Wait till next year, don't give up." But Pastor Joel Hunter is right: It's not enough to say "I really wanted to protect the Earth and the poor, but I wasn't sure the votes were there." We're not waiting any longer; we can do it now.

FRANK O'DONNELL

President of Clean Air Watch

A year ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the city's best vote counters, observed that "this may surprise people, but I think health-care reform is easier than all this global warming stuff."

Reid looks prophetic as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) founder with climate legislation. They spent months on an inside-the-Beltway strategy: offering special deals to appease powerful special-interest lobbies -- oil, coal, power, agriculture, etc. -- in hopes that those lobbies would persuade Republicans to sign up.

So far that strategy is a bust. No Republicans have yet reached out for the Hail Mary pass that Kerry and Lieberman tossed, and without substantial Republican support, it doesn't have a prayer. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) walked away after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told him not to expect additional Republican support.

Fortunately, the powerful seniors' lobby AARP has reminded us there is a more consumer-friendly alternative: legislation introduced by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). It would require polluters to pay for the right to pollute and return most of the money to the public.

Though this, too, is an obvious long shot, it is better policy -- and bipartisan.

PHYLLIS CUTTINO

Director of the Pew Environment Group's climate and energy programs

To paraphrase the writing on a car's passenger-side mirror, a comprehensive climate bill may be closer than it appears. Perception always rules the day in Congress, with nothing so obvious as legislation that has no chance -- but then once it starts moving, it was always inevitable.

In fact, if President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can see a measure to the floor, adding further energy and oil spill components to the Kerry-Lieberman language and then allowing an open amendment process, senators of both parties will be confronted by a series of defining choices.

They could vote against American competitiveness, allowing China and other countries to far surpass us in the race for new, clean energy technologies and jobs. They could spurn the advice of the American military, which has termed global warming a serious threat to national and global security.

They could fail to give companies the regulatory certainty an orderly energy market craves. And they could vote to keep us hooked to what President George W. Bush called our oil addiction, continuing to produce energy the way we have for a century.

Or the Senate could face the future and give the country a rational climate and energy policy.

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign

Even inside the bubble surrounding Washington, the real world matters.

Anthem Blue Cross tried to increase its insurance rates, which led directly to the passage of health-care reform. Goldman Sachs is charged with defrauding investors, which has motivated increased support for financial reform legislation. But does that mean the BP oil spill can pass an energy bill? Probably not.

As the Democrats' cap-and-trade proposal gradually morphed into a nukes-and-drilling package this year, the prospects for bipartisan agreement grew. But the thousands of barrels of oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day have stiffened the spines of both sides in the offshore-drilling debate, reducing the likelihood of compromise on the broader energy issue. Add the decision of Sen. Lindsey Graham, the bill's lone Republican supporter, to withdraw his sponsorship in a dust-up over immigration, and the odds look even longer.

Public concern about the spill has yet to grow into the outrage that the White House successfully directed against insurance companies and Wall Street. That would require a sustained effort not only to demonize the oil industry but also to explain the direct role that this bill would have in preventing these types of accidents in the future. That's even more difficult in a political environment in which the rawest emotional energy is expended on Arizona's immigration law, the Times Square bomber and the private life of a potential Supreme Court justice.

There is a wild card: the oil itself, as the slick begins to hit gulf states. A steady stream of photos of oil-covered tourists and shuttered beachfront hotels could grab voters' attention in a way that the first weeks of news coverage has not. But it might take that level of public and media frenzy to penetrate a capital culture that seems much more exercised about other topics.

JOHN W. ROWE

Chairman and chief executive of Exelon Corp.

Right now, there is an unprecedented, broad base of support for a bill to address energy security, jobs and environmental goals. Sens. John Kerry, Joseph I. Lieberman and Lindsey Graham worked to develop a new template to address climate and energy issues. They have changed the debate. Their proposal is a compelling, centrist package that has backing from a wide range of businesses, environmental groups, labor and the faith community -- from the Christian Coalition to major utilities such as ours.

Conventional wisdom holds that Congress does not tackle major issues in election years. The exception is when there is a recognized crisis or a broad-based consensus in favor of action. With the looming threat of climate change, the BP oil spill and the coalition behind the Kerry-Lieberman bill, both the crisis and consensus are emerging in the energy/climate world. Indeed, Congress has passed numerous energy and environmental statutes in election years.

The Kerry-Lieberman proposal is economically sound. It has the potential to create thousands of lasting, good-paying U.S. jobs and to help ensure America's competitiveness in the global clean-energy future. Most important, it would do so in the cheapest way possible: by putting a price on carbon.

Climate change is real. Waiting to address the problem will only make it harder and more expensive. This unparalleled coalition of business, environmental, labor and faith-based support won't last forever. We must seize the moment.

KENNETH P. GREEN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

While there is always some chance of the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill catching a wave and riding it to success, most analysts find the prospects for passage unlikely this year and equally dim next year. The several reasons for this boil down to two words: taxes and jobs.

No matter how they try to pretend a cap-and-trade bill isn't a cap-and-trade bill (and Kerry is as shameless as can be about this), every time such a bill is floated, it is quickly outed for what it is: a hidden energy tax and rationing scheme that steers money to crony capitalists and interest groups while sticking consumers with costlier, less reliable energy. And regardless of whether they are concerned about climate change, polls show that the public doesn't want more energy taxes, and it doesn't want more expensive energy.

Cap-and-trade is also quickly outed as a job-killer, particularly in the coal states and heavy manufacturing states, a fact that isn't lost on members of Congress facing elections in coal states.

There's a slim chance that Kerry-Lieberman might be propped up by the campaign environmentalists are ginning up over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by spinning it as a "Three Mile Island" wake-up call for fossil fuels. But to the extent they succeed in driving out the oil and gas features of Kerry-Lieberman, they further reduce its prospects for garnering Republican support for passage.

WILLIAM ANTHOLIS AND STROBE TALBOTT

Managing director and president, respectively, of the Brookings Institution; authors of the forthcoming book "Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming"

A growing number of people are beginning to argue that it will be easier to pass comprehensive climate legislation in the next Congress, after the midterm elections. They underestimate the advantages to moving now and overestimate the ease of doing it next year.

First, the House has already passed a bill. That narrow, seven-vote margin of victory came with 44 Democrats voting against the bill but eight Republicans voting for it. House Democrats who voted in favor of the bill would much prefer to have the Senate follow suit now so that they can claim a legislative win ahead of the November elections. Moreover, the gulf oil spill has drawn public attention to the role and impact of fossil fuels and the immediate, local dangers of energy sources. Senate Democrats who have been on the fence may find advantages to acting forcefully.

Waiting until next year is perilous. In a new Congress, all uncompleted business from the previous Congress would be back to square one. The Senate and the House would need to pass new bills. Most observers think the election will reduce the number of Senate Democrats from the current 57 (plus 2 independents) to the low 50s at best. Finding enough Senate Republicans to break a filibuster seems unlikely. And it will not be much easier in the House, since the Democratic majority is likely to dwindle. It is very unlikely that it will be easier next year for House Republicans to vote for the bill than it was when Waxman-Markey was passed.

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