Defeats doom climate bill in ’09
Resounding defeats for Democratic Party gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey on November 3 have killed any lingering hope Congress will enact climate change legislation this year, and may doom the prospect of passing a cap-and-trade bill this side of the 2010 mid-term elections.
Prospects for eventually passing legislation may now depend on winning Republican support with nuclear loan guarantees and more offshore drilling.
While the president remains personally popular, with high approval ratings, and does not need to face the voters again for another three years, 16 Democratic senators and 256 Democratic members of the House of Representatives will be on the ballot in November 2010.
The Virginia and New Jersey off-cycle elections are often idiosyncratic. But crushing defeats for Democrats at the top of the ticket in both states are already sparking a bout of soul-searching over the lessons that need to be learned if the party is to retain firm control of both houses of Congress next year.
What worries many Democrats is that turnout among the young voters who helped propel them to victory last year fell away sharply, self-identified independents broke heavily for the Republican candidates; and voters overwhelmingly cited the economy and jobs rather than healthcare or climate change as their major concern in exit polls.
Democrats face the classic dilemma for any party after a defeat — press ahead trying to enact a difficult agenda or pull back, re-focus on simpler and less controversial measures.
The White House insists both defeats were due to local factors (a poor candidate in Virginia, a souring economy in New Jersey) and will not change the president’s determination to press ahead with an ambitious domestic agenda centered on healthcare reform and climate change.
But the party’s congressional wing is divided. Liberals (mostly from safe seats at little risk next year) argue the administration and party should press ahead; voters will rally behind a record of accomplishment next year. Moderates and conservatives (mostly from swing seats or those carried by John McCain in 2008 or George W Bush in 2004) as well as those from heavy industrial states are pressing to scale-back and refocus on cutting unemployment.
In this context, it seems unlikely the administration can find the 60 predominantly Democratic votes it needs to pass a climate bill on the floor of the Senate; hammer out a compromise between the differing House and Senate versions in conference; then secure simple majorities in both houses to pass the agreed bill into law.
Even before this week’s election results, the prospects for passing climate change legislation this year were dimming rapidly. But the arithmetic, already challenging, has now become very tricky as the administration loses momentum.
60-VOTE DOUBT IN SENATE
In the Senate, only two Democrats are up for re-election in Republican-leaning states carried by John McCain (North Dakota’s Byron Dorgan and Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln).
Both have already taken a cautious approach to climate legislation. Both broke ranks with the majority of their colleagues earlier this year to vote for a Republican amendment preventing the budget reconciliation process being used to push through cap-and-trade on a 51-vote straight majority rather than the 60-vote super-majority normally needed to end a filibuster.
But the party remains ambivalent over cap-and-trade, split between liberals from coastal states who want a commitment to tough emissions reduction objectives, and senators representing industrial areas or conservative states anxious about supporting anything that could be portrayed as a costly, job-killing energy tax by their opponents at election time.
In theory, the Democratic Party (together with its independent allies) has the 60 votes needed to push a climate bill through despite almost uniform Republican opposition. In practice, the party broke 26-31 in favor of the Republican amendment to the budget resolution earlier this year, in what many saw as a straw poll on cap-and-trade.
Some Democrats have fallen into line since then, and the administration may be able to pick up one or two Republican votes such as South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham with the promise of loan guarantees and other government help for the nuclear power industry.
With several Democrats harbouring concerns, though, there are not yet 60 votes for an ambitious climate bill.
The bill will not be openly defeated on the Senate floor. If it dies or gets delayed it will be in the cloakroom. Majority Leader Harry Reid will not bring it up for a vote unless and until 60 firm votes are in his pocket. So Democrats with doubts will be able to delay the bill indefinitely by holding out and asking for more concessions, without having to come out explicitly against it.
RISK OF REVERSAL IN HOUSE
The arithmetic looks as daunting in the House of Representatives. While the lower chamber has already approved its own climate bill (HR 2454) legislators will have to vote again to pass the consolidated version if and when it is agreed in conference.
There is nothing to stop congressmen changing their minds. As the election draws closer and the already bitter partisanship in the chamber intensifies, some of the bill’s earlier supporters may withdraw.
The original bill passed only by the narrowest of margins (219-212), with 44 Democrats voting “No.”
A total of 84 Democrats represent Republican-leaning districts carried by John McCain or George W Bush in 2004. It will take only a handful of further defections to sink the measure if it returns from conference.
If the consolidated bill has been toughened in line with the Senate version (S 1733), congressmen will have a ready-made excuse to claim it has gone too far.
Parties controlling the White House usually lose seats at the mid-term elections, so pressure on Democrats in Republican-leaning areas will be immense.
The party’s heavy losses in Virginia and New Jersey this week will make them very cautious.
CROWDED AGENDA, LOSING MOMENTUM
Arguably, the president has tried to push through too many ambitious reform proposals and stretched his political capital too thinly.
At the best of times, it would be difficult to get either healthcare reform or climate change through Congress when the president’s majority is an uneasy coalition of liberals and centrists. But when the president is having to deal with a recession, financial regulation, and whether to increase the military commitment to Afghanistan, it has proved impossible to rally support for them both at the same time.
Hopes that healthcare and climate change legislation could be rammed through early in the year, long before the mid-term elections, while the Republican Party was still consumed by infighting after losing heavily in 2008, have evaporated.
Climate change has become a second-order priority. The political capital needed to assemble winning coalitions for a bill in both chambers is being deployed elsewhere.
The best option for the administration may be seeking to broaden its coalition, buying more Republican support through a combination of nuclear financing guarantees and greater access to offshore drilling.
But if an agreed climate bill does not go through before the year end, its prospects next year, when legislators will be fixated on the looming elections, are no better.