Six weeks ago, it looked as if there was no chance that Congress would approve climate change legislation this year.
The bill that had passed the House was so long, so complicated, so punitive to the coal-dependent Midwest economy, involved so many political compromises and so much money to be redistributed by the feds, that it became the whipping boy for conservative politicians and commentators.
Passage of health care legislation may have changed all that.
Democrats and their liberal supporters saw how much good could be accomplished by not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. And Republicans and the business lobby were reminded of the concessions they could have won but didn't by their decision to abandon compromise and instead try to kill the legislation altogether.
Now, thanks to the heroic efforts of two dogged senators — Democrat John Kerry and Republican Lindsey Graham — and the quiet support of the White House, there looks to be a 50-50 chance the Senate will pass a simpler and more moderate version of a bill this year that would begin to substantially reduce carbon emissions in the United States.
Many in the environmental community have come around to Kerry's view that this is the best shot they are going to have any time soon at passing comprehensive energy and climate change legislation. And parts of the business community have come around to Graham's view that they can't afford another decade of uncertainty over regulatory issues, particularly with an activist Democrat in control of the regulatory agencies, just as they cannot afford to alienate an entire generation that has a keen interest in the environment and doesn't look kindly on their intransigence.
At this point, it's a bit of a stretch to call this a bipartisan compromise — the bill that Kerry, Graham and independent Joe Lieberman are expected to introduce a week from today is likely to have no other Republican as an initial co-sponsor. But its terms have been crafted to appeal to a handful of Republicans who, out of personal belief or political necessity, are eager to find themselves on the right side of history.
Although the Senate bill retains the cap-and-trade structure of the House bill, it would apply, at least initially, only to electric power producers, with other manufacturers coming under the regime after 2016. The oil and gas industry would be handled under a separate regime that requires refiners to buy emissions permits for all the carbon contained in the gasoline or other fuels they sell — in effect, a fee or tax on carbon. The amount of the fee would be determined by the price at which carbon emissions allowances are bought or sold by utilities on open exchanges. And while the fee would almost certainly be passed on to consumers in the form of higher fuel prices, most of it would be rebated through payroll and other tax credits. By paying more for energy and less for taxes, the idea is that Americans will use less energy and wind up with roughly the same amount of money in their pockets.
As with health care and financial regulation, these accommodations should put the lie to the idea that the White House and Democratic leaders are embarked on radical crusades and unwilling to engage in bipartisan compromise. Through this process they came up with a better bill. If Congress is unable to address global warming, it won't be because of "special interests," but rather because of ideological zealots and Republican partisans who are determined to deny Democrats another victory.