Climate Bill, R.I.P.

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Although the president is receptive to the utilities-first approach, he has also made clear that he'll settle for much less, including a watered-down bill that would increase investments in clean energy without tackling carbon emissions directly. "He recognizes the challenge of 60 votes," says Browner. "If there's another way to get started to move forward, he's open to that." Sen. John Kerry, whose comprehensive climate bill with Joe Lieberman is now dead, emerged from a meeting at the White House on June 29th sounding an even stronger battle cry of capitulation. "We believe we have compromised significantly," Kerry declared, "and we're prepared to compromise further."

Indeed, the president has made no concrete demands of the Senate, preferring to let Majority Leader Harry Reid direct the bill – a hands-off approach that is unlikely to produce a measure of any substance. "You have two camps right now in the Senate," says a top congressional source. "One is the camp of 'Let's put something together, put it out there, whip it really hard and get to 60.' And then you have the Harry Reid model, which is 'Let's wait until we know we have 60 votes.' " Climate advocates are furious at the least-common-denominator approach, saying it takes victory off the table. "You can't run up the white flag," Sen. Jeff Merkeley of Oregon said in June, "until you have the fight."

From the start, Obama has led from behind on climate change. Shortly after he took office, the White House seemed inconvenienced when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made climate change a top priority, moving swiftly to push a cap on carbon pollution through the House. Rep. Henry Waxman, who played an instrumental role in the legislation, was frustrated by the White House's refusal to come up with specifics to guide the effort. "Browner tried to produce a detailed policy position," says Eric Pooley, author of the just-published The Climate War, a definitive account of the legislative fight. "But that effort was blocked." Obama's top political advisers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, pointedly avoided the legislative battle, viewing it as politically unwinnable.

So Waxman moved on his own. Working with Rep. Ed Markey, he caught the White House off guard by cutting the difficult political compromises that were necessary to gain the support of coal-state Democrats and bringing the bill to a vote. It took Al Gore sitting down with Emanuel and going over voting lists, name by name, to persuade the White House to throw its muscle behind the bill and pressure congressional holdouts to fall in line. On June 26th, the measure passed by the narrowest of margins, 219-212.

But despite having a climate bill in hand, the White House decided to put its muscle into passing health care reform. Emanuel promised climate advocates that the administration would return to global warming in early 2010. By then, however, the drawn-out fight for health care was on life support, and Democrats no longer held a 60-vote edge in the Senate. The momentum on climate legislation had been squandered. "It's a shame, because the window really was 2009," Pooley says. "It wasn't going to be easy, but if you don't even try, you're not going to get it done – and they didn't even try."

By waiting until after the health care fight, the Obama administration also allowed the energy industry and its conservative allies to mobilize their troops and hone their anti-climate rhetoric. Taking a page from the "death panel" lies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and energy-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity waged an all-out campaign against the climate bill, indelibly branding common-sense penalties on climate polluters as "taxes." With no one making an effective pitch for economy-wide carbon limits, "cap and trade" quickly became the bill that dare not speak its name.

The climate bill finally got back on the rails late last year, when the Senate trio of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham – a Democrat, Independent and Republican – tried to pursue a "tripartisan" approach to global warming. There was plenty to like about their bill. It would have slashed climate-warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050, at a cost to consumers of less than 40 cents a day. In an age of soaring deficits, it would also have reduced the nation's red ink by $19 billion over the next decade.

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