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The Battle in Congress

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the USCAP coalition knew that their greatest challenge lay in persuading lawmakers to support their plan. In this respect, the green groups believed that the president would play a decisive role by pushing for the bill, just as George H. W. Bush had done with acid rain legislation under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, when he sent his White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, to personally shepherd the bill through the Senate floor. But if Obama was sincere about addressing climate change, external events lowered the issue on his list of priorities before he was even sworn in.

By late 2008, the U.S. economy was in serious trouble, with the gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking by its worst quarterly contraction in half a century. Obama took office facing the highest unemployment level in 16 years, skyrocketing foreclosures amid the subprime mortgage crisis, and the country's banking and automotive sectors on the brink of collapse. From the start of the administration, it was also clear that climate would have to vie with health care reform for the top spot on the president's domestic policy agenda. With these competing priorities, the green groups soon realized that despite the president's encouraging speeches, he preferred to let Congress hash out the details of a bill before expending his own political capital to lobby for legislation.

Even so, the green groups had reason to be optimistic. The bill was first taken up in the House of Representatives, where they had a strong ally in one of the most skilled legislators in Congress, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat from California. Waxman, the newly appointed chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, started to draft a bill with then Representative Edward Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, in early 2009. But as the negotiations carried deep into the spring, some grassrootsbased environmental groups grew uncomfortable at the compromises being made. The bill was being hammered out behind closed doors, with direct input from big oil and big coal interests, which, in addition to supporting Republican Party members, have given generously to key Democrats. According to Ted Glick, policy director at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, it was becoming clear that industry groups were in a win-win position: “They knew if they defeated the bill that was good, but if what passed was completely watered down, that would be good, too.”

When the Waxman committee bill was finally released on May 21, 2009, it numbered almost 1,000 pages and was a nearly indecipherable piece of policy making that attempted to reconcile vast and conflicting special interests through allowances and offsets and other enticements. Groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace came out against the bill, arguing that it had lost the narrative of the urgent need for the reduction in carbon emissions. “It was really a political bill; it wasn't a science bill,” said John Passacantando, former executive director of Greenpeace USA. “It wasn't a bill that was going to address atmospheric CO2. It was, how are we going to buy off the coal industry first because it's a huge player in the Democratic Party.” Despite these divisions, on June 26, the Waxman-Markey bill passed in the House, marking the first time that comprehensive carbon-cap legislation passed one of the congressional chambers in a full vote. The close tally—219 to 212, with only eight Republicans voting for the bill—reflected just how bruising a vote it was for members, many of whom later said they had taken the toughest vote of their careers.

The backlash against the House vote began immediately, with the most

Climate demonstrators in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 2009.

damning reaction coming from the right-wing Tea Party movement, which labeled the bill as “cap and tax” and lambasted lawmakers who voted for it as “cap and traitors.” Tea Partiers had already rallied a powerful base of grassroots activists to protest Obama's economic stimulus bill and to support an anti-regulation and ultra-free-market agenda. The movement's grassroots populism was accompanied by big-money advocacy from such sources as the

Koch brothers, the billionaire conservatives behind energy conglomerate Koch Industries who had long fought action on climate change. According to Greenpeace, the Koch brothers have given more than $61 million to “climate-denial front groups” since 1997, with the majority of the funds (nearly

$38 million) given between 2005 and 2010.

Despite the victory in the House, passage of a Senate bill proved difficult from the start. The bill needed every one of the 58 Democrats in office at the time, but not all the Democrats supported cap and trade. Following a failed legislative attempt by Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat from California), a coalition of three senators—John Kerry (Democrat from Massachusetts), Lindsey Graham (Republican from South Carolina), and Joe Lieberman (Independent from Connecticut)—began working on a “grand bargain” for an emissions cap. Yet despite huge concessions to industry interests—including increased production of natural gas, nuclear power, and offshore oil drilling—the bill never gained enough momentum to be taken to a floor vote in the Senate.

A competing bipartisan bill in December 2009 by Senators Maria Cantwell (Democrat from Washington) and Susan Collins (Republican from Maine) called the Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal (CLEAR) Act similarly failed to gain traction. The CLEAR Act called for a “cap-and-dividend” strategy of auctioning 100 percent of the pollution permits under a carbon cap and pledged long-term carbon reductions similar to those of the Waxman-Markey bill. Unlike the Waxman-Markey bill, however, it offered Americans an average $1,100 annually to a family of four between 2012 and 2030 to cover the anticipated increased energy costs from a carbon cap. Even if its policy promises might have resonated with much of the American public, most of the big greens were committed to cap and trade and treated the legislation as a distraction.

By spring of 2010, prospects for a Senate bill finally unraveled. On April 20, an explosion on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico led to a massive oil spill. Any chance that the disaster might have created support for climate legislation was offset by the fact that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill had called for large-scale expansion of offshore drilling. Two days after the BP explosion, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat from Nevada), whom the green groups had hoped would help push the bill to the Senate floor, announced that he was placing climate change on the back burner in favor of immigration reform. Despite several additional attempts to pass a climate bill in subsequent months, Senate Democrats announced on July 22 that they were abandoning efforts to pursue climate change legislation before the summer recess. Reid's adviser, Chris Miller, said that while Reid was supportive of passing climate legislation, the green groups simply “didn't have a Senate strategy” that made passage of a bill realistic.

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