Democrats Start to Play Hardball on Climate

>Thanks to BP's oil spill, significant climate-change legislation now has a real shot at passing, though not because it will gain votes for the Senate's struggling energy-reform bills. Democrats have another tactic in mind.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's latest energy strategy is to fold a comprehensive climate bill in with bipartisan legislation reforming the oil industry. The "spill bill," a response to the BP oil spill that would impose new safety and environmental rules and reform regulation of offshore oil exploration, is fast-tracked for approval in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee next week. Both Democrats and Republicans have rallied behind the need for refined regulation to ensure that a disaster like the Gulf spill does not happen again. Democrats are hoping that by sneaking energy provisions into the bill, Republicans won't be able to vote against it without looking like they're siding with Big Oil.

Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, lays out the dilemma Democrats are hoping to place in Republicans' laps:

People have never been enamored with big oil companies, and now they're even angrier at them. The upcoming debate will pose a choice for senators to either vote with Big Oil and block reform or vote with the American people to make our rigs safer, reduce oil use, and reduce oil pollution.

Democrats took a similar strategy with financial reform, using the economic collapse to pressure Republicans into voting for more Wall Street regulation. Next week's vote will determine the success of this strategy once and for all, but Democrats are confident that the bill will enjoy bipartisan support. With climate, however, they'd risk torpedoing vital reforms to the oil industry if the strategy did not work.

They'd also risk compromising key energy provisions, not just because of the dual-bill strategy but because of the accelerated timeline. Democrats have not yet decided which climate legislation they want to pursue. At caucus meetings yesterday and last week, they debated the merits of three different bills: John Kerry and Joe Lieberman's cap-and-trade version, Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins' cap-and-dividend one, and Jeff Bingaman's energy-only bill.

Emerging from yesterday's closed-door meeting, Democrats were bizarrely effusive about the proceedings. According to The Hill, Lieberman called the meeting "absolutely thrilling," Reid termed it "very, very powerful" -- "inspirational, quite frankly," and Kerry said it was "without doubt one of the most motivating, energized, and even inspirational caucuses that I've been part of since I've been here in the Senate in 26 years." Asked about specifics, however, Kerry was mum.

Climatewire reported that Chuck Schumer suggested assembling a small group of Democrats to draft compromise legislation and rally the party around it. A similar method was used to pass the health care bill, which, though it did not get any Republican votes, did eventually achieve relatively unified Democratic backing. This kind of party discipline would be vital to passing a joint oil/energy bill and would likely require similar strong-handed maneuvering to achieve. Democrats have been far from united on the climate front, with some refusing to vote for a bill that does not price carbon and others refusing to vote for one that does. Coal and oil state Dems are in a particularly tough spot and will likely require extensive provisions for clean coal technology and nuclear energy as well as a compromise on offshore drilling.

Yesterday's caucus meeting did signal a shift in tone, however, and attendees were glowing about a renewed sense of unity and purpose. The decision to lump energy in with the oil bill is a change of strategy, one that shows Democrats are ready to play hardball. If Senate leaders and the White House back this effort with the force they (eventually) put behind health care, it could have its first realistic shot in a long time at passage this year.