What the Climate Bill Fence-Sitters Want

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Barack Obama will give a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, intended to push the Senate closer to passing a climate bill this year. But the path forward is still fraught with obstacles.

The Environment and Public Works Committee will begin hearings on the Kerry-Boxer proposal next Tuesday, featuring a full-court press of top officials: EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Jon Wellinghoff. The bill’s authors hope to have the bill passed out of committee by the Thanksgiving break, which is feasible: the committee includes a majority of Democrats who are enthusisastic supporters of climate legislation. Passing it out of the full Senate, however, is the real challenge.

My best estimate has 35 senators likely to vote for the Kerry-Boxer bill column, 36 maybes and 29 firm “no” votes. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham’s willingness to work with the authors doesn’t indicate that he’ll necessarily vote for a bill, or that he’ll help bring along other Republicans. Nor does it necessarily make the vote any easier for moderate Democrats; I would list at least 25 Democrats as still undecided. (Grist and Climate Wire are also tallying the fence-sitters.)

The unease among the fence-sitters was evident at Wednesday’s hearing before the Energy and Public Works Committee, and the dominant concern was how to allocate carbon credits, a matter that Kerry and Boxer‘s draft bill leaves open to negotiation in the hope of enticing more senators on board.

The lack of details, though, has annoyed some Republicans. “We’re going to have hearings on Tuesday and I haven’t seen the bill,” said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). “If there are allowances, I’d be very interested in seeing the allowances in the bill for the simple reason that they have a great deal to do with projected costs of various aspects of our economy and to our citizens.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, likened the House process to “doling out pieces of a pie,” and fretted that in the Senate “there aren’t enough pieces left to satisfy the groups vying for them to repeat this process.”

“Our climate policy, no matter what form it takes, is meant to be an environmental program, not an appropriations bill,” she continued. “By imposing cap and trade we’re basically going to be creating a new form of currency out there, and any permits given away will hold massive financial value.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) repeated his belief that the value of carbon credits should be returned to consumers through a dividend system. He worried that the multi-billion-dollar value of a pollution permit system would be “going to corporate pockets or government coffers.”

Fence-sitting Democrats, too, expressed concern. “The issue here is how do you reduce the emission of CO2 in a way that doesn’t cause chaos here in the country in terms of the economic situation of a family,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). He also suggested that a carbon fee—some might call it a tax— might be more efficient.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who has introduced her own climate bill (more on that later), raised questions about the distribution of credits and the trading part of cap-and-trade. “We can’t just continue to have the notion that a trading regime is magically going to work,” she said, noting the “shenanigans” in the financial markets.

Sen. Boxer is expected to release a chairman’s mark that will fill in the allocations portion of the bill before the EPW committee votes. But the Finance, Agriculture, Commerce, and Foreign Relations committees are expected to play a role in shaping some of the specific provisions.

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