In Session

Kerry's lonely push on climate change

Despite failed attempts to get the bill through Congress, Sen. John F. Kerry predicted eventual success.
Despite failed attempts to get the bill through Congress, Sen. John F. Kerry predicted eventual success. (Andrew Harrer/bloomberg News)
Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

He fell just short of winning the White House in 2004. Four years later, he was rumored to be a leading contender to be secretary of state, until President-elect Barack Obama stunned everyone by tapping his former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But even as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) announced last week that he had failed in his latest political endeavor, pushing through a bill to combat climate change, he predicted eventual success, invoking a Massachusetts colleague and presidential contender.

"I just want to say to all of you on a personal level that, you know, I watched Ted Kennedy over 26 years fight to get tough things passed," Kerry said at a news conference Thursday. "And in 1970, he began that effort to pass health-care reform. We just got it this year. This is not going to take that long. This is not going to take close to that long."

Rather than take up a bill seeking to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, a long-held Democratic goal and campaign priority of Obama's, Democrats will try to pass legislation over the next few weeks that would raise liability caps for companies such as BP after oil spills. The measure would also offer some incentives for Americans to buy more-energy-efficient products for their homes.

The retrenchment comes after months of internal debate among Democrats, much of it led by Kerry. Last summer, the House pushed through a bill based on the principle of "cap and trade"; it set up emissions limits for companies that produce greenhouse gases, along with permits for emissions they could trade with one another.

But that legislation, which barely passed in the House, had even more opposition in the Senate, where Republicans and Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) argued that it could raise energy prices or hurt local industries such as coal. And the phrase "cap and trade" was so sharply attacked by Republicans that Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University who has advised Democrats on language, urged them to avoid it.

So, in October, at the urging of Democratic leaders, Kerry started up a group, along with Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), to write a climate bill that could weave a coalition of 60 votes.

Kerry is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post usually focused on issues of war and diplomacy. But he had long worked on the environmental issues, attending climate conferences since 1992. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, had struggled to move the legislation forward in 2008.

According to his office, Kerry held 300 meetings or phone calls with senators of both parties on the legislation, along with dozens of talks with industry and environmental groups and Obama administration officials. He led near-weekly meetings this spring and summer to win over Senate Democrats.

His passion for the topic was such that a Politico article quoted Rockefeller and an unidentified senator casting Kerry as overzealous, while Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) publicly praised Kerry, saying, "No one has worked harder on any piece of legislation in my entire legislative career than Senator Kerry has worked on this." (In a meeting with senators last week before announcing that the climate change bill was dead, Kerry said, "If I'm being too aggressive, I apologize." But he emphasized the importance of the issue.)

The months of work didn't move many of his colleagues. Graham, the only Republican who had been on board, withdrew his support, arguing that Congress should pass a more pared-down bill.

Democrats such as Rockefeller never backed the bill, either -- even as Kerry modified it. The bill at first capped emissions from a whole set of industries but was modified to cap emissions only for electric companies. And while Obama called for some kind of legislation in the wake of the gulf spill, his administration didn't press for a climate bill as strongly as it did on health care. "I always knew this was difficult, and I was always knew once health care took as long as it did, this was going to be exceedingly difficult," Kerry said in an interview. "Health care stole the legislative session; there is only so much time, and there is only so much will to do a very complicated, difficult political lift."

But, he added, climate change legislation "will happen; it has to happen for the country. . . . The question is when and how. That's what we're working on."

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