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Reading the tea leaves on the climate bill

The dog days of summer will soon arrive with Congress starting a month-long recess and official Washington becoming a very quiet place. But behind the scenes, negotiations on a federal climate bill will continue as legislators and their staffs try to find the formula that can garner 60 votes in the U.S. Senate in the fall.

In recent weeks, most of the focus has been in the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee where the chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), has held a series of hearings on climate legislation and its potential effects on economic growth, agriculture, and national security. Sen. Boxer, who has said that the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House last month is her working model, now says she intends to introduce a Senate version right after Labor Day. She has a comfortable majority on her committee (12 Democrats to 7 Republicans), but she needs to fashion a bill that can draw at least some support across party lines. Meanwhile, five other Senate committees (Energy & Natural Resources, Finance, Foreign Relations, Agriculture, and Commerce) have jurisdiction over issues that could find their way into a final Senate package.

Most Capitol Hill analysts think that as many as 20 senators are undecided about how they would vote on a climate bill. A review of individual Senate web sites reveals more mystery than clarity on the positions of senators who may hold the fate of federal climate legislation this year. Grist is running a useful series on swing vote senators and public statements they have made on climate issues. See insights about Senate moderates such as Sen. Bayh (D-IN), Sen. Dorgan (D-ND), Sen. Nelson (D-NE), and Sen. McCaskill (D-MO) to get a sense of how much work remains to be done.

Some environmental advocates have questioned whether Reps. Waxman and Markey gave up too much to coal and agricultural interests to get their bill passed in the House. A lot of dealmaking — particularly the allocation of carbon emission allowances to industries — occurred in the final hours leading up to the final vote on the House floor. Nevertheless, Waxman and Markey preserved the basic legislative framework that if enacted would reduce carbon emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

The biggest challenge ahead for Sen. Boxer and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is that they have to renegotiate these same issues with senators who will want to put their own stamp on the climate bill. Senators, even more than members of Congress, are fiercely independent and many expect to have a role in writing legislation.

Watch, too, for the White House to weigh in during the process. Carol Brownezr, the president’s adviser for energy and climate, may be in the best position to determine what kind of climate deal is possible this year. In the spring, Brownezr engineered the federal agreement that will dramatically raise U.S. fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. But in that case she was dealing with an auto industry literally on its deathbed. Facing a recalcitrant group of undecided senators, Brownezr will need to listen carefully to their concerns if she is to help the full Senate get to yes.

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