Are The Senate Climate Talks Leading Anywhere?

by Bradford Plumer | January 24, 2010

From chatting with people on the Hill these past few days, it's clear that there's a lot of pessimism about the Senate passing a big climate bill this year. (And if nothing passes in 2010, next year won't be any easier, given that Democrats will likely lose a bunch of seats in the midterms.) The dour predictions aren't surprising, given that even health care reform is in peril right now. But it's interesting to note that, via Juliet Eilperin, the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman trifecta is still working hard to cobble together some sort of climate compromise:

The three lawmakers met with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel Thursday afternoon for "a strategy session and to discuss the president's remarks at the State of the Union," in the words of one Senate aide familiar with the meeting. Graham also delivered his assessment of where members of the GOP stood on the prospect of a bill. ...

The troika met this week with officials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most outspoken opponents to the House-passed climate bill. Folks from the Chamber refused to comment.

And the three senators agreed to set aside four hours a week--which could translate into as many as eight separate meetings--to meet as a group with central players in the climate debate, and to recruit new Senate supporters. Next week the three will meet with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the author of a competing climate bill.

The big question, of course, is what sort of legislation will emerge from these sessions. Early on, the expectation was that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill would feature an economywide cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, plus extra support for offshore drilling and nuclear power to snag GOP votes. Lindsey Graham is still trying to sell his party on this framework, recently telling Republicans, "You’re not going to get the nuclear power provisions you want unless you do something on emission controls."

Lately, though, other approaches have crept into the conversation. The "cap-and-dividend" idea championed by Susan Collins (R-ME) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) seems to be garnering some interest. (Under this proposal, carbon would essentially be taxed at the source—at the mine or the well—and most of the proceeds would be refunded directly to households. See this analysis for pros and cons.) Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski says she hasn't ruled out co-sponsoring the Cantwell-Collins bill. And Graham recently said he expects a Senate compromise to involve a "hybrid" of cap-and-trade and cap-and-dividend.

Then there are less-ambitious approaches that have support from various factions. Richard Lugar (R-IN) has been mulling an option that would just cap emissions from electric utilities, which produce about 40 percent of the country's carbon pollution. There's also the lurking possibility of an "energy-only" bill that would include things like renewable-power mandates, efficiency standards, and money for transmission lines, but no price on carbon. Neither of these approaches would make nearly as big a dent on emissions as an economywide cap, but a lot depends on what can get 60 votes. And, finally, the EPA is still crafting its own regulations on greenhouse gases, provided they're not blocked by Congress.

So, for now, climate/energy isn't dead as an issue, but it's still very uncertain what the actual policies will look like.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-vine/climate-bill-talks-still-chugging-along-where-are-they-leading