Has the Climate Clock Run Out?

| Mon Apr. 5, 2010 10:29 AM EDT

For months now, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have promised to deliver a climate bill in the "coming weeks." They've delayed the release repeatedly in order to continue the delicate negotiations needed to marshal 60 votes in the Senate. The three lawmakers now say they plan to introduce their bill the week of Earth Day, April 22. But have they already run out of time?

The biggest challenge to passing a climate bill in the Senate is the bloc of legislators agitating to move forward with an energy bill that has already been approved by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That bill had bipartisan support, but don't mistake it for climate legislation. Its targets for clean energy are comparatively weak and it includes handouts, rather than restrictions, for fossil-fuel industries. Most importantly, it places no firm limit on carbon pollution. The bill's author, Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), has maintained that he'd like to see his bill combined with a cap. But it appears he's growing tired of the endless wait for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation and skeptical that it can attract sufficient support to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for a comprehensive bill. But last week, his office started sending clear signals to the climate troika: time is running out. The Washington Post reports that Reid is starting to put some pressure on the trio. "We have to be making final decisions soon," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Post. If there's no comprehensive bill soon, leadership seems likely to advance the energy-only bill.

Then there are the logistical constraints. There are 15 working weeks left before elections (Congress is in recess at the end of May, the first week of July and from August through Labor Day.) A climate and energy bill also requires five to six weeks of review by the Environmental Protection Agency. Most Senate observers admit that if a comprehensive bill isn't ready for consideration by Memorial Day (May 31), it probably won't be taken up. Legislation could be debated in June, but by July we'll be entering election season, where Congress' willingness to take risks plummets to new lows.

The energy-only approach may be more expedient. But it, too, could face major hurdles. Environmental groups have made it clear they won't back a bill that doesn't address the problem of global warming, and a number of senators have pushed for a vote on a comprehensive bill this year. Even Lindsey Graham has expressed doubts about the energy-only route. "I'm not going to ask the environmental community to accept a compromise that doesn't in a serious way deal with our carbon pollution problems," he said earlier this year.

With April now well underway and still no sign of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, time is running out fast.