How Climate Legislation Failed

| Mon Oct. 4, 2010 4:52 PM EDT

Ryan Lizza has a big piece in the New Yorker about the failure of climate legislation to move forward this year, and it's worth a read. But I agree with Jonathan Zasloff: if you come away thinking that the White House is mainly at fault here, you've taken away the wrong message.

Quick summary: early on there were two possible strategies for getting a bill through the Senate. The first was to round up four or five Republican supporters, since everyone knew there were at least a few Democrats who would never come on board. That never really went anywhere because there just weren't any. In the end, Lindsey Graham was the only Republican willing to support a climate bill.

So then there was Plan B: get industry groups on board, and hope that they could put pressure on Republicans to do the right thing. So John Kerry, Graham, and Joe Lieberman (collectively KGL) went to work. They got the Chamber of Commerce on board by promising to preempt EPA regulation. They got T. Boone Pickens on board by promising a bunch of tax incentives for natural gas. They got the big oil refiners on board — for a few weeks, anyway — by agreeing to remove refineries from the cap-and-trade regime and instead have them pay something called a "linked fee."

Along the way there were some screwups. The White House unilaterally agreed to support $54 billion in nuclear loan guarantees. Then the EPA agreed to slow down its plans to regulate carbon. Finally, at the end of March, Obama announced a plan to allow more offshore drilling. All of these are things that KGL wanted to hold in reserve as bargaining chips with wavering Republican senators. But even so, they kept plugging away until April, when a White House source apparently told Fox's Major Garrett that Obama opposed the linked fee. Graham's policy aide, Matthew Rimkunas, emailed Lieberman's aide, Danielle Rosengarten:

The subject was “Go to Fox website and look at gas tax article asap.” She clicked on Foxnews.com: “WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill.” The White House double-crossed us, she thought. The report, by Major Garrett, then the Fox News White House correspondent, cited “senior administration sources” and said that the “Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions.” Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word “tax” thirty-four times.

“This is horrific,” Rosengarten e-mailed Rimkunas.

“It needs to be fixed,” he responded. “Never seen [Graham] this pissed.”

A week later Graham had pulled out and the bill was effectively dead. And there's not much question that Obama didn't help matters much. But Jonathan identifies the key passage from the story, which took place months before any of this other stuff:

Back in Washington, Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill “before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,” one of the people involved in the negotiations said. “He would say, ‘The second they focus on us, it’s gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it’s gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves. We have to move this along as quickly as possible.’ ”

That's it. I've long thought that Obama's approach to climate change was woefully inadequate, but even if Obama had done everything in his power to move climate legislation forward there's simply no evidence that it would have worked. With public support so weak, one story on the Fox News website was enough to sink Graham's support. If it had ever gotten to the point of being treated to the kind of 24/7 Fox treatment that Graham was afraid of — and it would have — there isn't a single Republican who would have touched the KGL bill with a bargepole. Industry "support," which mostly means only that they would have been slightly less vicious in their opposition than usual, would have meant nothing. There would have been no Republican support. Period.

Lizza's piece is a good one, and it's worth reading the whole thing. But be sure to back away from the trees occasionally to take stock of the forest. All of the insider byplay is interesting in a human sort of way, but underneath it all it's clear that the bill simply never had a chance. No conceivable combination of policies and giveaways would have produced 60 votes. It's time for Plan C.1

1Also known as Plan EPA. I think history's ultimate judgment on Obama will depend on whether he has the guts to lend his support to a strict EPA enforcement plan that might, in the end, finally force the Senate into action. Stay tuned.