Time for a Do-Over on Clean Energy Legislation

Senator Kerry and Senator Lieberman are telling everybody who has a microphone that their climate bill isn't dead. But their aggressive reassurances are misplaced energy.
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The months-long saga of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill is so fraught with drama that I wouldn't be surprised if The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin were directing it. Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman worked for months on a comprehensive climate and energy bill that could attract enough Republicans to pass the Senate, fulfilling a campaign promise of President Obama. But on the weekend before the bill was to be introduced, Senator Graham abandoned the process.

A meeting of the three Senators held Monday night would have been perfect timing for President Bartlet to hobble into the room, relate a folksy anecdote about his time as New Hampshire governor, and then give Senator Graham the tongue-lashing necessary to get him back on board.

Cue the theme music.

Except President Bartlet is a television character; he doesn't exist. And if everything we've heard about the bill Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have been working on is true, it would be better if it didn't, either.

In a phone call last Thursday with progressive business leaders, Senator Kerry said that he expected three big oil companies -- Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips -- to support the bill. That tells you all you need to know. Any time you have three major players in the fossil fuels industry lining up behind climate and energy legislation, it's a bad sign. In this case, the bill appears likely to be riddled with loopholes and giveaways and include a thorough evisceration of the Clean Air Act.

These concessions are why groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Center for Biological Diversity have been cold to the bill. It would be ridiculous to take away our most powerful existing tool to fight the climate crisis.

By Saturday, Senator Lindsey Graham had bailed, postponing indefinitely the introduction of the bill. He said it was a response to a rumor he'd heard that Majority Leader Harry Reid wanted the Senate to tackle immigration reform first.

Tackling immigration reform first would be a "cynical political ploy," said Graham, to help Reid's chances of re-election in the fall. And Lindsey Graham, no matter what other Republicans say about him, doesn't want to contribute to the re-election of the Majority Leader.

Senator Kerry and Senator Lieberman are telling everybody who has a microphone that their bill isn't dead. But their aggressive reassurances are misplaced energy. Lindsey Graham's move gives Kerry and the majority the time to step back, retool, and unite behind a Plan B that's actually in the public interest. Democrats can start unambiguously standing up for the Clean Air Act and ditching the giveaways to polluting special interests. By doing this, they can unite their base and build the grassroots support for clean energy legislation that can help a strong bill pass.

Last week, Friends of the Earth and several other green groups sent a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus urging him to hold hearings on the CLEAR Act, a bipartisan bill written by Senator Maria Cantwell and Senator Susan Collins.

The CLEAR Act is not a perfect bill. The reduction goals set by the CLEAR Act are not as stringent as they need to be to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. But the right pieces are there. The bill puts a price on carbon generated from fossil fuels, and most of the money goes directly to consumers. It doesn't create a dangerous carbon market that would be susceptible to the same sort of derivatives trading that caused the economic recession. Perhaps most importantly, the CLEAR Act doesn't gut the Clean Air Act's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

There's no doubting that the CLEAR Act needs improvement and fleshing out. But its areas of weakness -- and its innovations -- can only be discussed if the leadership in the Senate is willing to hold hearings on it. It isn't the be-all-end-all for climate legislation, but it's an important addition to the discussion. Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman's languishing bill has kept other ideas from being heard, and it's past time for a do-over. Now that Senator Graham has stepped away from the conversation, there's an opportunity for it.

And the CLEAR Act is bipartisan. Senator Collins, the bill's Republican co-author, has a better environmental record than most Democrats. So when Senator Graham whines, "Am I supposed to write every bill for the whole country?" it would do Senator Kerry some good to realize the answer is, "Nope."

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