A New Lineup of Climate Bill Players

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>For the past nine months, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham were the face of climate legislation in the Senate. They worked the circuit of Washington's Sunday shows and lobbyist luncheons in an attempt to build momentum for a cap-and-trade bill. But after Graham ditched the effort and Senate Democrats hemmed and hawed about the PR stigma of "cap-and-trade," this momentum dissipated. Kerry and Lieberman's bill now has no chance of nabbing 60 votes, so a different bipartisan team may step up to the plate: Jeff Bingaman and Lisa Murkowski.

Politico ran a story this morning characterizing the shift from Kerry to Bingaman as one from charisma and passion to dullness and pragmatism. Whereas Kerry approached climate with moralistic zeal, Bingaman, Coral Davenport writes, "is known as one of the most frustratingly unquotable members of Congress, who nearly always responds to questions with measured qualifiers." But:


Here's what Bingaman does do: He slowly, carefully and methodically hammers out pragmatic, detailed energy legislation with Republican partners in long, dull markups that don't draw attention but do produce solid pieces of legislation forged in the order of the committee process.
Democrats can't rely on certain coal and oil-state members of their own caucus to fall into line on energy. Instead, they're counting on Bingaman, the boring, bipartisan broker, the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to deliver GOP support.

Bingaman's first target will likely be Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, his longstanding partner on the energy committee, who currently serves as its ranking member. The two recently drafted a bill in response to the oil spill, tightening regulations and reforming the Minerals Management Service. Harry Reid has plans to shoehorn climate provisions into this legislation, thereby forcing Republicans to vote for an energy bill or risk appearing to side with Big Oil.

He hopes to launch this plan after the Fourth of July break, but Murkowski is facing an August primary challenger who does not believe in the science behind climate change. Some observers think she's been feinting right recently to woo hard-line Alaskans, attacking the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases as a means of playing down her cooperation with Democrats on climate change. If this is the case, now may not be the best time for her to replace Lindsey Graham as the Republican liaison on a climate bill. She's also lashed out at Democrats for using the oil spill to disparage her EPA resolution, so she may bristle at Reid's approach.

On the other hand, Murkowski has a history of partnering with Bingaman on climate issues. In 2007, she cosponsored an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill he wrote that wouldn't have a prayer of passage today. Last spring, she and Bingaman drafted an energy-only bill (i.e., no cap on emissions) that is looking increasingly attractive to Democrats as the prospects for cap-and-trade sputter. In March, she lauded the opening of a new climate science center at the University of Alaska Anchorage, calling her state "ground zero for climate change."

But even if Murkowski overcomes her looming political concerns and works with Democrats on a climate bill, she will be no Lindsey Graham. Earlier this year, she supplied a list of the oil and gas provisions -- such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling -- that she would need in order to vote for a climate bill. Graham was a valued bipartisan liaison because he was able to broker deals for other Republican senators and interest groups; a liaison who demands controversial concessions for her own state, as Murkowski will, leaves Democrats less wiggle room.

And whereas Graham was willing to take the controversial step of backing a cap-and-trade system, Murkowski said a few weeks ago that she does not think "there is the political ability to put a price on carbon." It's possible Bingaman could persuade her to support the utility-only cap he's currently devising, but any climate bill that Murkowski supports will be infinitely more modest than Kerry's opus (which already paled in comparison to the House climate bill).  

But Murkowski and Bingaman could achieve what Kerry and Lieberman could not: 60 votes.
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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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