From Obama's "Planet in Peril" to Democrats in Peril: The Politics of Climate Change

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(Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) Now that carbon caps or any other direct curbs on greenhouse gases appear dead in the Senate, at least for now, it seems like a good time to ask: How did one of President Barack Obama's key domestic initiatives fall apart?

The political press is rife with stories looking at the demise of a global warming policy as part of an energy bill slated to hit the Senate floor this week. But for the Senate the bottom line seems to be this: You just don't try to pass big, controversial, economy-changing legislation so close to an election. Not if you're serious about passing it, that is.

(There are dissenters to this view. On WNYC's Brian Lehrer show July 23, New York Congressman Anthony Weiner argued pretty strongly that Senator Reid was cowardly not to try-- and that a public debate might have helped Reid accrue a few more votes.)

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said it plainly last week. He just didn't have the 60 votes needed to pass an energy bill that included a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions. That stayed true even when Democrats tried to take the edge off by narrowing the plan to apply to utilities alone, an idea many of the utilities themselves supported. Why not?

Ineffective politics may be one reason. Politico details recriminations between the Obama White House and environmental groups. Administration officials accuse environmental groups of ineffective lobbying, spending $100 million but failing to win over one Senate Republican to their side. Environmentalists say President Obama was never that serious about the legislation to begin with an refused to put his heft behind it and push for it as a priority.

Second, Washington toxicity. The Senate is going through a period of sour partisanship. It is just not an environment where complicated, far-reaching legislation like a global warming policy tends to flourish. Remember, health care reform did pass, but only after Democrats resorted to procedural tactics enabling them to overcome unified GOP opposition. That option wasn't available here. No bipartisanship, no bill.

But the third, and most important factor has to be the 2010 midterm elections. Old Republican allies of climate change legislation, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are nowhere to be seen on the issue. McCain is shoring up support among the conservative base for his GOP primary election back home. Extending the hand of bipartisanship to the likes of Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer is probably not in his political interest right now.

The Hill newspaper points out that, beyond GOP opposition, Democrats themselves are far from unified on the need for carbon caps or how to achieve them. The carbon legislation sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) inevitably opens up regional rifts between senators. Coal state senators are edgy, manufacturing state senators are reluctant, oil state senators are pretty much opposed.

As The Hill points out, having an open Senate floor debate on controversial climate legislation likely would have exposed lots of rifts between Democrats at a time when they would rather be pointing out differences between themselves and Republicans.

Harry Reid says that sometimes the Senate is as simple as counting to 60 votes. It's a lot easier to do when partisan politicians aren't counting votes of their own back home.