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Hold Off On Those Climate Bill Obituaries....

Seems like the conventional wisdom in Washington right now is that there's no way the Senate passes a climate bill in 2010—especially after that long, gory health care battle we just saw. Here's The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza: "No matter what Obama and his advisers said… there is now no chance that the Administration's climate-change proposal will come up for a vote in the Senate prior to the 2010 election. Politicians never like casting controversial votes, but they like doing so even less in an election year."

Cillizza posted that in late December, shortly after Politico published its own story on how "moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year." Now, there's slightly less to the Politico story than meets the eye, since the main cap-bashing quotes came from Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, who have been surefire "no" votes since day one. (Nelson we're all familiar with, and Landrieu's a no because she relies on support from Louisiana's oil refiners, who seem to outweigh any concern that her state's particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and hurricanes.) But Politico's right that it'll be a tough slog.

That said, there don't seem to be any signs that Democrats are planning to relent just yet. A few days ago, Ben Geman of The Hill reported that most of the caucus wants to move on a climate bill, and that includes coal-staters like Arlen Specter. True, a few conservative Dems would rather drop the carbon cap and just pass a standalone energy bill—money for renewables, money for the grid and electric vehicles, etc.—but that's still a minority view. And the White House insists it won't stand for "slicing and dicing." They want the full cap.

Granted, just because Democrats are moving ahead doesn't mean they have the votes. And if Landrieu and Nelson are opposed, they'll need some Republican support. But optimists should note that Lindsey Graham is still huddling with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on a "tripartisan" climate bill. Graham keeps getting abused by the South Carolina GOP, but he's calling for a "meaningful control" on pollution. Also, Susan Collins is co-sponsoring a cap-and-dividend bill—read about the pros and cons of that approach here. So that's at least two Republicans. Not a slam-dunk, but not sheer fantasy, either. (And for those who love tea leaves, two more Republicans, Richard Lugar and Lisa Murkowski, were saying positive things about the Copenhagen accord.)

So what about Cillizza's argument that politicians "never like casting controversial votes in an election year"? That depends how controversial you think a climate bill will be. Many pundits (and Democrats) think it's poison. But curbing carbon pollution does surprisingly well in the polls—and support has held steady for some time now, despite Climategate, GOP attacks on the House bill, etc. (Last I checked, swing Dems in the House weren't suffering for their Waxman-Markey votes, either.) Mind you, health care's been hogging all the oxygen lately, and once the spotlight's on climate, support could shrivel—especially if the economy's still flopping and everyone's furious at Obama. But, for now, it's not clear that climate/clean energy's a toxic issue.

What's more, as Tom Daschle has pointed out, it's not even true that Congress shies away from controversial bills in election years. Welfare reform passed in the summer of 1996, and the most recent Clean Air Act amendments—including a cap-and-trade system for sulfur-dioxide—passed the Senate in April of 1990. Both big election years. (If anything, you'd think that House members would be more skittish about passing election-year bills; senators were given six-year terms precisely so their chamber didn't have to freak out over every little midterm.)

Then there's the biggest reason climate change isn't likely to slink away in 2010—the EPA, remember, is still preparing to regulate carbon-dioxide on its own if Congress doesn't step in. That's already prompted a few swing senators, like Mark Pryor, to reconsider their stance on cap-and-trade. The Senate doesn't have a choice between doing nothing and doing something. It's a choice between doing something or having the EPA do it for them and making a lot of businesses angry. (One caveat: As Kate Sheppard reports, on January 20th, the Senate will vote on a Murkowski amendment to strip the EPA's CO2 authority. It's unlikely this gets 60 votes, but if it does pass, that obviously makes a huge difference.)

Anyway, I'm not wholly confident a climate bill will pass in 2010—it's the Senate, after all, and lots can go awry. But none of the early obituaries for cap-and-trade sound very persuasive. What's more, it's worth considering what would happen if Dems did abandon climate change this year. The party's expected to lose seats in both the House and the Senate this fall, and there aren't a whole lot of green Republicans on the ballot (especially now that Charlie Crist could get snuffed out in Florida). So how will tackling carbon emissions get any easier in 2011 or 2012? It feels a little extreme to say, "It's now or never," but on this issue, that's a real possibility...

(Flickr photo credit: Frank Synopsis)