Trying times in the Senate over Lieberman-Warner bill

For a bill that nobody expects to pass, the Lieberman-Warner climate legislation is stirring up its share of sturm und drang in the Senate. Conservatives have been working themselves into a righteous frenzy over the perceived “green boondoggle”; meanwhile, progressives are agonizing over the legislation’s imperfections, and even wondering out loud whether it might be better simply to scrap the whole thing.

Yesterday, tensions came to a head as the Senate held its first vote on the bill: a procedural motion setting the stage for a wider debate. The motion passed overwhelmingly, but it could be the last consensus we see for a while: Republicans immediately angered the Senate’s Democratic leaders by insisting on a further 30 hours of preliminary debate before the Senate could formally begin to consider the climate bill.

The Republicans’ delaying tactics point to the deep partisan divides that still weigh down Lieberman-Warner, and that ultimately will likely scupper it altogether. While an increasing number of lawmakers now say they’re determined to address the climate crisis, the bill’s fate depends on the support of 18 or so conservative and moderate senators - and they’re unlikely to jump on board unless they win big subsidies for their states’ coal and nuclear industries.

That clashes with the priorities of powerful Senate liberals, most notably Barbara Boxer, who’s already said that she’ll shoot down the legislation rather than allowing it to be diluted. And of course, the Senate is merely the first hurdle: If senators somehow contrived to pass the bill, there would be little chance of the House following suit; and if both chambers passed versions of Lieberman-Warner, President Bush would likely veto anything that crossed his desk.

All of which begs the question: Why are the Democrats devoting so much energy to a doomed climate plan - and why are Republicans mounting so much resistance to a bill that will never enter into law? It’s likely because both camps see Lieberman-Warner as a dry run for a more serious legislative effort in the next Congress. In other words, picking over these issues now allows them to rehearse their arguments for the battle that lies ahead.

The current debate is a good opportunity for congressional greens to build momentum for climate reform, and to show wavering lawmakers that change is coming. But it’s a risky business: Over the next few days, climate skeptics will be working to widen the cracks in the Democratic coalition, and looking to win concessions that could later prove difficult or impossible to reverse. Make no mistake: Lieberman-Warner may be doomed, but both sides will still be playing for keeps.