Climate Change Legislation: Not This Year

Climate change legislation will have to wait. All indications coming from the U.S. Congress, the White House, and global community suggest that a legally binding climate change agreement will not be an immediate priority. President Obama has signaled that his next priority will be dealing with job creation and deficit reduction, not climate change. What does this mean for proponents of climate change legislation? First, environmentalists have lost the “bully pulpit” that President Obama brought to this issue. Second, since the executive branch is not going to push this bill, the probability for substantive legislation on greenhouse gas emissions being passed during the current term has been significantly reduced. Third, since this issue will likely be marginalized by Democrats, it will give ample reason for Republicans not to work with the majority party on climate change legislation. Thus, it is highly likely this issue will have to be revisited during a second Obama term, presuming there is one.

If the White House has decided not to make climate change legislation a priority, then what about Congress? Currently, the U.S. Senate is deliberating over the Boxer/Kerry bill on climate change. As noted in earlier posts, the bill was dislodged from the Environment and Public Works (EPW) by Chairwomen Barbara Boxer (D, CA) in response to a Republican boycott of the mark-up process. Even so, it is unlikely that a major push for its passage will happen anytime soon in the Senate as a whole, mainly because a number of senators who represent mid-western states worry the current climate-change bill could punish their states economically. Ideology has also created a wedge between senators. This ideological schism between senators is not driven solely by party membership in the Senate. A group of moderate senators from both parties are beginning to form a coalition separate from the more liberal members of the Democratic Party. Last week’s decision by Boxer to remove the bill from the EPW committee did not help to bridge the gap between moderate senators and liberal proponents of the bill.

Proponents of the bill will find it difficult to have climate-change legislation reach the Senate floor for consideration because power within the chamber has shifted towards rural interests. More specifically, moderate senators, who represent rural areas, have begun voicing their skepticism over the bill. Recently, Richard Lugar (R, IN) stated he will not support the bill because economic interests of his state take precedence over climate change. The sole Democrat to vote against Boxer’s move in the EPW committee is Max Baucus (D, MT). Senator Baucus, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, indicated that the current bill does not do enough to protect domestic interests; he added that some type of carbon import tax should be added to the bill. Charles Grassely (R, IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has also indicated his opposition to this bill. Senator Grassley argues the legislation needs to reflect the true economic costs of the bill and should not be centered on “purported environmental benefits.” But push-back on the bill among senators is not limited to Republicans. Midwestern senators Sherrod Brown (D, OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) have both voiced their hesitations over the bill in its current form. They have indicated the bill which needs “a lot of work”, should include more provisions to help energy-intensive industries such as steel, pulp, paper, and cement.

What is the probability of the bill receiving 60 votes to move forward for consideration? As of now, it is very unlikely. In an analysis of the current margins in the Senate of senators who support the bill, probably support the bill, are on the fence, and those who do not support the bill, the number of members who would vote for cloture (to break a filibuster) is 42. The chart below illustrates the current voting patterns of members voting for cloture on the bill. The estimates range from “1” vote for cloture to “0” a vote against cloture. Members who have a probability between .4 and .6 are moderate members who could in fact help boost the bill’s chances for passage. Members below the .5 threshold are unlikely to vote for cloture. I have circled the senators whose support for this bill is crucial if it is to move forward.

Members who fall within the circle include:
Begich (D,AK)
Lincoln (D,AR)
Pryor (D,AR)
Bayh (D,IN)
Landrieu (D,LA)
Collins (R,ME)
Snowe (R,ME)
Mccaskill (D,MO)
Baucus (D,MT)
Tester (D,MT)
Nelson (D,NE)
Hagan (D,NC)
Conrad (D,ND)
Dorgan (D,ND)
Voinovich (R,OH)
Specter (D,PA)
Johnson (D,SD)
Webb (D,VA)
Byrd (D,WV)
Rockefeller (D,WV)

In any event, the differences in the likely voting patterns of senators on the bill is a primary reason, I suspect, that the president has backed down from pushing the passage of this legislation in the near-term. As a result, President Obama’s inaction may in fact discourage senators who “are on the fence” from taking a supportive position of the bill—killing this piece of legislation before it goes up for a full vote.

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