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Obituaries aside, the climate bill still lives

Ever since President Obama took office 15 months ago and said that federal energy and climate legislation would be one of his top domestic priorities, we have seen a steady stream of political obituaries written about such bills. Many of these stories have a kernel of truth: our nation faces complex challenges in any transition from our fossil fuel economy to one that relies on new technologies and low-carbon energy sources. The inertia embedded in ways we’ve always done things, along with regional differences in energy use profiles, make fashioning an economy-wide bill extremely difficult. Nevertheless, a determined group of legislators worked through the details and passed the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” last June.

Monday, Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman were scheduled to release their own energy and climate bill at a major Washington press conference after months of negotiations. But it was not to be. Over the weekend, political maneuvering concerning immigration reform derailed the announcement, thus leading to more obituaries.

The trigger was Arizona’s passage of the nation’s toughest immigration law last week. Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, responded to Arizona’s action by proposing that the Senate debate the immigration issue on the floor – possibly ahead of any climate policy discussion. The unspoken logic was that the immigration debate could galvanize Hispanic voters in California and Nevada and lead to higher voter turnout in key races (including that of Sen. Reid). Sen. Graham, one of the few Republicans willing to work with Democrats on bipartisan legislation, was furious. As a leader in past immigration reform efforts, Graham knew how much work remained to complete a viable immigration bill. He saw the prospect of a Senate floor debate on immigration as a recipe for further political division. So to make his point, Sen. Graham wrote Sen. Reid to announce that he was walking out of final talks on the climate bill. On the face of it, this sounded like the “dead as a door nail” obituary.

But remarkably the climate bill is still alive. Key senators and White House officials are trying to work out a compromise that would allow the climate debate to go first and then have immigration addressed at another time in the Senate calendar. Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman met last night, and while they did not report any progress on procedural issues, they agreed to forward their bill to the EPA for economic analysis, a key step in having the bill ready for floor debate. Even amid the political rancor in Washington, we still have a bipartisan energy/climate bill that has the support of many of America’s businesses and environmental groups, a House-passed companion in Waxman-Markey, and a path to winning 60 votes in the Senate this year.

Climate has been the single highest priority of the environmental community and its supporters for a decade. We need to take advantage of this opportunity because the House and Senate may be less friendly to climate legislation after the November elections. The K-G-L bill would lock in a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2020 and allow the U.S. to meet international commitments President Obama made in Copenhagen last year.

To stem the tide of political obituaries, President Obama and Majority Leader Reid need to set the schedule, stay engaged in the process, and help the K-G-L authors get the 60 votes. Only with this kind of leadership will we see comprehensive energy and climate legislation come to pass.

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