As you may know, last week the Senate debated and held votes on S.3036, the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008. It was the first time that a greenhouse gas (GHG) cap-and-trade bill had ever come to the floor of the Senate through regular order—that is, having been debated and voted out of a committee—and it was an historic opportunity to advance climate change legislation.
Unfortunately, the debate was not as productive as we might have liked. Due to an unrelated dispute over judicial nominations, opponents of the bill dispensed with a Senate courtesy and forced the reading of the entire 492 page bill into the record. That took 9 hours, and wasted an entire day that could have been spent in debate.
The bill was pulled from the floor after a procedural vote at the end of just one week. That procedural vote—to invoke cloture, or end the debate on the bill—failed by a vote of 48-36. In addition, 6 Senators who were absent, including presidential nominees McCain (R-AZ) and Obama (D-IL), entered statements into the record saying they would have voted for cloture had they been present. 60 votes would have been needed to close debate on the bill and move to a final vote.
Of the 48 who voted in favor, there were a number of notable voices of support, including those who had voted against the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bills of 2003 and 2005—Sens. Baucus (D-MT), Dole (R-NC), Levin (D-MI), Lincoln (D-AR), Martinez (R-FL), Nelson (D-DE), Pryor (D-AR), Smith (R-OR) Sununu (R-NH), and Warner (R-VA).
Readers should know, however, that there is much controversy among seasoned observers over how to interpret “yes” and “no” votes. Many of the votes cast in support of ending debate, for example, were clearly not votes for S. 3036. In particular, 10 Democratic Senators (9 of whom voted for cloture) sent a letter to Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) and Senator Boxer (D-CA) stating their opposition to the bill in its current form. At the same time, some of the Senators who voted against cloture have either previously voted for or co-sponsored other cap-and-trade legislation, or spoken in favor of cap-and-trade on the floor on the Senate. In our opinion, there is a clear majority, and perhaps even 60 or more Senators, who support mandatory cap-and-trade legislation. But the challenge of drafting legislation that can draw all of those Senators to support a particular bill is daunting.
That said, there was a good deal to be learned from last week’s exercise. Climate science was only minimally debated, and the bill’s supporters did a good job of describing the consequences of inaction. The big issues to be resolved before we will reach the 60 vote threshold are cost and spending – how to minimize and contain overall costs; how to provide relief for those who will be most affected by the bill (for energy intensive industries who may be disadvantaged by higher fuel prices because they manufacture globally traded commodities; for regions of the country where coal burning is the major source of electricity; for consumers who will be faced with higher electricity prices); how to minimize administrative costs and bureaucracy; and how to spend and invest the estimated trillions of dollars that will be generated by the sale of emissions allowances.
There is a deal to be made on climate legislation, but it will not be an easy one. In some ways, it is remarkable that the debate has come this far without Presidential leadership. When the next opportunity comes to pass climate legislation, it will hopefully be taken as seriously as we would take the consequences of doing nothing at all.
President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change