Amid the Deep Freeze, One Senator's Warm Outlook for Climate Legislation

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) participates in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on December 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on foreclosure justice and causes and effects of the foreclosure crisis.  (National Journal)

The prospects for climate legislation seem so grim that few Democrats even talk about bringing a bill to the floor these days.

But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and self-described "climate hawk," has a theory about why the political calculus will change in the not-too-distant future.

He sees a window opening in 2015 or 2016 to move a bill that sets fees on carbon emissions, and he offered a political road map on Wednesday night.

"I am very confident that we can win a lot sooner than people think," Whitehouse said on a troop-rallying call with activists hosted by Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that sprang from President Obama's reelection campaign.

Whitehouse is offering a contrarian view. Cap-and-trade legislation collapsed in the Senate in 2010, and big climate proposals have been in a deep freeze ever since.

So why is he optimistic that a big vote swing is possible? One reason is the Environmental Protection Agency's looming carbon-emissions regulations for power plants.

"When those big power plants are going to face serious EPA regulation, for their owners, suddenly, yeah, maybe a carbon fee doesn't look like such a bad deal," Whitehouse said.

He believes various other pieces are falling into place that, combined with a sustained push from activists, could make legislation a reality.

Those pieces, he said on the call, include more big corporations coming around on climate and stepped-up political work by groups like the League of Conservation Voters.

Whitehouse also argues that public opinion — including among young Republicans — is shifting fast enough that the GOP can't possibly field a climate "denier" as their 2016 presidential candidate.

That means congressional Republicans will move toward the center to provide cover for their standard-bearer, theorizes Whitehouse, who is part of a new coalition of Senate Democrats trying to play offense on climate change.

"Put all of those things together, and I think we have a real chance to have a good carbon bill come through Congress after this [midterm] election and before the presidential [election], in 2015 or 2016," Whitehouse told the Organizing for Action activists on Wednesday's call.