Don’t hold your breath for the U.S. to have a climate bill ready for the Copenhagen summit. As expected, partisanship is driving the mark-up process of the Boxer-Kerry bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. As of today, Republican committee members have signaled they will not participate in the process until they are provided with more information from the EPA and CBO over the bill’s full economic costs. At the same time, committee chair Barbara Boxer (D, CA) has signaled that she is ready to invoke Senate rules to dislodge the bill from the committee and to bring it directly to the floor in response to the Republican Party’s boycott. To supporters of the bill, Boxer’s strategy may seem like a good thing to pursue in order for the bill not to get bogged down in committee. It is not however. This is because she will need not only the support of moderate Democrats but also of moderate Republicans; both groups of committee members have signaled they are skeptical of the financial costs of the bill.
To understand the reasons behind the stand-off between Democrats and Republicans serving on the committee, it is important to consider the ideological differences between them. To do this, I have provided a chart below, which illustrates ideological differences among committee members as defined by Poole and Rosenthal’s DW-Nominate scores. The scores measure members’ ideology and range from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative) on the x-axis. The y-axis of the chart simply measures the differences between members geographically—i.e. how far they are from each other based on the Republican realignment in the south during the later part of the 20th century. By looking at the chart, you can appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to the committee as a contributing reason to the stand-off. A good way to understand the gap between members is to look at the differences between Bernie Sanders (I, VT), the most liberal member of the committee, and Jim Inhofe (R, OK) who is the most conservative member of the committee. Between these two members is a considerable gap, which helps explain the reason for the GOP’s opposition to the bill. The ideological divide between Democrats and Republican committee members, therefore, does not lend itself to a high probability of bipartisan behavior. This outcome, however, is not inevitable. In fact, it can be averted if Senator Boxer can successfully reach out to moderate committee members.
So, who are the moderate members Senator Boxer needs to reach out to in order to pass a bipartisan bill? Moderate committee members are those who fall within the circle that is drawn on the chart above. I define moderates as: Democrats who are to the right of the party’s center (-.43); and Republicans who are to the left of the party center (.45). In actuality, moderate members of the committee tend to be closer to one another than they are to some of their fellow partisans. From this vantage point, moderates act as a third party in Congress and serve as means to counterbalance the ideological extremes at either end of the political spectrum. And as result, a coalition of these members negate the possibility that Boxer will be able to bypass her committee in the mark-up process.
If Boxer wants a bipartisan bill, I suggest two courses of action. First, build a coalition with some combination of at least five of the following individuals: Voinvich (R, OH), Carper (D, DE), Baucus (D, MT), Alexander (R, TN), Udall (D, CO), Bond (R, MO), Specter (D, PA) and Gilibrand (D, NY). The strategy here is that essentially these members are not too far from each other ideologically, so accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Second, Boxer needs to be careful not to alienate any of the eight moderates in her endeavors to muster at least five of them to vote for the bill. If she does decide to pull the bill and take a more hard-line position, then this is sufficient enough to scare conservative Democrats (Carper, Baucus, Specter, and Gilibrand) or moderate Republicans (Voinvich, Bond, and Alexander) off. As of today, Boxer’s partisan approach ensures that both Republicans and moderate Democrats will not support the bill when it reaches the Senate floor.
So, to get the votes on the bill it is not enough for Democrats simply to unite liberals, they will also need support from moderate Republicans and Democrats alike. Even if Senator Boxer is able to get the support of a few moderates on the committee, she will have to reach out to all moderates in order to ensure that she does not alienate any of them when the bill does come to a vote.