The climate bill conundrum

Alas, Lieberman-Warner, we hardly knew ye. The long-awaited - though admittedly lackluster - climate legislation crashed and burned in the Senate last week, with Democratic leaders abruptly ditching the bill after failing to win enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

The bill’s failure came as no real surprise, but even taken merely as a test run for future climate efforts, the Lieberman-Warner debates were a disappointment. Democrats seemed disorganized and unable to patch over the cracks in their coalition: Ultimately, a motion to move ahead with the climate bill won just 48 votes. Six lawmakers who missed the vote subsequently said that they’d have backed the bill if they’d been there; even then, though, the climate coalition would have fallen six short of the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican opposition.

That raises some serious questions. For starters, it’s far from clear where those six extra votes will come from when climate legislation is reintroduced next year. The few remaining Democratic fence-sitters probably won’t come into the fold without securing major concessions, and winning over wavering Republicans might well mean stuffing the climate bill with a worrying amount of pork.

Still, we knew that building a viable climate coalition wasn’t going to be easy. The really troubling new discovery from last week’s debate was that Democrats are still struggling to make climate legislation palatable for the American people, or to counter Republican claims that the climate bill would lead to energy price increases and ultimately hurt American families.

Republicans were determined to keep the debate focused on pocketbooks rather than the environment, and had already begun work on amendments that would have shut down the bill’s clean-energy measures if gas prices rose above $5 a gallon. With oil price hikes already winning headlines, Democrats worried that rather than paving the way for success in the next Congress, the Lieberman-Warner debate would give the GOP an opportunity to paint climate legislation as merely a back-door tax increase.

In that light, cutting short this round of the climate debate looks like a reasonable move. Still, it’s worrying that Democrats couldn’t muster a convincing rebuttal to the Republican spin - especially since climate reform would actually help free American families from their dependence on volatile energy markets. If green lawmakers want to push real climate reforms through the next Congress, they need to find a way to get that message across loud and clear.