What are Senators Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham trying to accomplish with their climate bill?



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    In a broad sense, they’re trying to accomplish the creation of some type of policy to deal with climate change; in a narrower sense they’re trying to make a Washington deal. The climate bill has a checkered history, having passed the House of Representatives last year and languishing in the Senate while most of the political fireworks have been over health care reform and economic issues. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) has chosen to work with Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Joe Lieberman (independent from Connecticut) because those two are good linchpins for potential blocs of support (or opposition) to the bill. That’s probably a good move; Graham commands a lot of support from the Republican minority in Congress, and Lieberman, although an independent, often sides with less conservative Republicans and isn’t afraid to invoke the specter of a filibuster to get his way. The remaining issues on the climate bill, so far as we know, involve some type of support for nuclear energy, and also a method of valuation of carbon credits. The establishment of some type of carbon trading scheme (known as “cap and trade”) will probably be the main feature of the bill. Although Kerry has made statements that he’s very optimistic about the future of the bill, others aren’t so sure. Chair of the Finance Committee Max Baucus, for example, a Democrat from Montana, doesn’t believe the Senate will pass a climate bill this year. Whether it will pass or even come up for a vote remains to be seen.

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    First, a little background.  Despite some significant federal government investments over the past year in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, the United States remains one of the last industrialized countries not to have passed any comprehensive climate bill.  In June of 2009 the US House of Representatives passed a bill called the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act which takes at least the first step toward putting a nation-wide cap on carbon emissions responsible for global warming.  For climate policy to become law however, it has to pass both the House and the US Senate – and it’s in the Senate that the project has stalled.  With initial attempts to pass a senate climate bill having largely failed last fall, Senators John Kerry (Democrat-MA), Lindsey Graham (Republican-SC), and Joseph Lieberman (Independent-CT) are heading up the effort to re-start the debate on climate legislation.  So far, it looks like the three senators are trying to accomplish several important things:

    Create bipartisan support for a climate bill

    If a climate bill is going to pass the Senate, it needs support from both Democratic and Republican senators (and an Independent like Lieberman certainly wouldn’t hurt, either!).  That’s because the Senate has a special rule called the filibuster which allows a minority of senators to block debate on a bill unless at least 60 out of 100 senators vote to move forward.  At present the Senate includes 41 Republicans, 57 Democrats, and two Independents who tend to vote with the Democrats.  Generally Democrats are thought of as more likely to support climate policy than are Republicans – but because of the filibuster, Democrats can not pass a climate bill in the Senate by themselves.  Add to that the fact that some of the more conservative Democrats, like Blanche Lincoln of Louisiana, are unlikely to vote for a climate bill anyway, and the need to have at least some Republicans on-board becomes obvious.  By crafting a climate bill with the backing of a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent, the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman trio is hoping to get members of both major political parties on board.

    Build a green energy economy

    As part of their effort to win support from both progressive and conservative lawmakers, Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have repeatedly emphasized that climate legislation will not just be good for the planet, but for the US economy as well.  Lindsey Graham, the Republican member of the trio, has made it clear he believes a comprehensive climate bill will be needed in the US if this country is to avoid being left behind in the clean energy race by other countries.  Meanwhile when John Kerry and California Senator Barbara Boxer made an earlier attempt to get a climate bill through the Senate last fall, Kerry listed the need to put Americans to work building a clean energy economy as a major reason to pass climate legislation.  This is all much more than rhetoric.  Someone is going to have to build the clean energy infrastructure that will replace out nation’s coal plants and oil refineries – and using climate legislation to create green-collar job for US workers should be something senators in both major political parties can support.

    Put a price on carbon emissions

    Yet while creating green jobs is going to be an important part of any climate bill, it’s important to realize reducing US greenhouse emissions will probably be impossible unless we can put a definite price on carbon – whether through a “carbon tax,” “carbon cap,” or any of the other various policy proposals put forward so far.  Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman certainly realize this.  Lindsey Graham has been very vocal in his opinion that an energy-only bill, which invests in renewable technologies but does not create a framework for reducing carbon emissions, is not going to be enough.  Graham quite rightly insists that an energy-only bill would not put the US in a position to lead the green economy, and that some form of a limit on carbon must be a part of any final climate bill.

    Strike a compromise with polluters


    Creating bipartisan support for a climate bill, stimulating the green economy, and limiting carbon emissions are all things most environmentalists can wholeheartedly support.  But there also aspects to the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal that some environmental groups find disturbing.  In an October, 2009 op-ed published in the New York Times and co-authored by Kerry and Graham, the senators stated they believe a climate bill must include provisions to boost nuclear power, expand offshore oil drilling in US waters, and invest heavily in “clean coal” technology.  None of these ideas sit well with environmentalists – and for very good reasons.  It’s because of this that groups like Friends of the Earth have been highly critical of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman approach and other attempts to pass climate legislation in the Senate.  The compromises struck by Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman pose a difficult compromise, and one that really has no easy answers.  The three senators’ proposal is sure to fall short of what will is really needed to break our addiction to fossil fuels.  Yet without passing this bill as at least a first step, it’s unlikely the Senate will pass climate legislation at all any time soon.

    Find a new approach to limiting carbon

    Soon after the 2009 op-ed mentioned above, John Kerry and Lindsey Graham began working on a climate proposal that could win support in the Senate – and they were soon joined by Joseph Lieberman.  Yet while some of the basic elements of their final proposal have been apparent for some time, it’s only recently that the public has gotten a look at the specifics of how the three senators would like to regulate carbon.  Just in the last couple of weeks, they’ve unveiled a plan that’s significantly different from any climate bill proposed before.  Previously it was assumed that any climate bill which passed the Senate would be some version of an economy-wide “cap and trade”plan, which would divide up a limited number of trade-able pollution allowances among all polluters.  Yet Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have steered away from this approach, which has proven unpopular in the Senate.  Instead, the senators propose to treat each major sector of the economy separately.  In their plan energy utilities would still be regulated through a cap and trade system (or something pretty similar – it gets complicated and there’s no room here to get into all the nuances!).  Meanwhile, the transportation sector would be regulated with a carbon tax on petroleum-based fuel.  Emissions from heavy industry would not be limited at all at first, but would eventually come under regulation.  Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman obviously hope this approach will generate support in the Senate more easily than past proposals – but whether or not it will remains to be seen.

    Win the support of voters

    What’s certain is that passing any type of climate bill in the Senate will not be easy.  For this to happen at all, it’s going to take thousands or millions of US voters urging their senators to get serious about protecting the climate.  That’s where you come in.  If you care about this issue, you can find out who your state’s US senators are right here, and then contact them to let them know your views on climate legislation.

    Photo credits: The White House, Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Station, Wind Turbine Blades

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