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In the heat of Monday afternoon, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) fumbled with her kickoff speech on global warming legislation as she tried to wax poetic about the need to save the planet, and the United States, from environmental disaster.
Boxer couldnt find parts of her speech Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) leaned in to help at one point rifled through her notes, went off in several directions and even stopped to talk to her staff in the middle of the speech. Her disorganized comments might have gone unnoticed, but they seemed to symbolize the disarray that many Democrats say has plagued and will continue to afflict the Senate debate on climate change this week.
We are about to take up the most important fight of our generation, and we have no strategy, no message and no plan to get out of this, one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Another senior Senate Democratic staffer echoed those sentiments: Everyone knows this bill is going nowhere. The president is opposed to it. The House is not inclined toward action on this, and now were going to spend valuable floor time on a bill thats going nowhere ... while Republicans are champing at the bit to accuse Democrats of raising gas prices.
Aides also said some Democrats fear that having a global warming debate this year will only end up aiding the campaign of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has broken with his party to support climate change legislation.
The furor in the Democratic caucus has been brewing for weeks, with Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) and other Senators voicing their concerns in weekly Democratic luncheons. Their concerns include whether the party has laid the groundwork to win the public relations campaign as well as how to deal with politically difficult amendments offered by Republicans, a Senate Democratic source said.
And meetings of Democratic legislative directors as well as those of Democratic chiefs of staff on the bill recently featured sharp exchanges with Boxers senior staff on the Environment panel, several sources said.
Even environmental groups are wary of bringing up the bill now.
"There is a political concern, with people asking why are we doing this now, gas prices are $4 a gallon, were at the beginning of the summer driving season, why are we doing this when the opposition is going to say were screwing the American consumer?" said a staffer at an environmental group backing the legislation.
It appears that the Democratic discord has less to do with the bills specifics, the bulk of which most Democrats support, and more to do with the communications strategy or lack thereof employed to maximize any political gains if the bill fails to garner the 60 votes necessary to beat back a likely filibuster.
This is what happens when the committee staff and the chairman get so deep into the weeds of the bill that they can no longer see the political realities, said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
Boxer is walking us off a cliff, another senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Many Democrats across the ideological spectrum foresee a public relations disaster looming, given that whip counts show that not even a majority of Senators less than 45 by most aides counts are likely to vote for Boxers substitute, which was authored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.).
Some Democratic aides said they fear that a lackluster vote could hinder what many foresee as the real debate next year, when either McCain or a Democratic president will be more favorable than President Bush to climate change legislation.
At a post-rally press conference Monday, Boxer acknowledged that there are a lot of voices saying, Why now?
Asked what she is doing to assuage her Democratic colleagues concerns, Boxer said she is using intellectual argument debate like you do in the Senate, when you go to a very pressing issue and you make your arguments. ... At this point, my concern is just getting the bill out there. Weve done that. From here on out, its up to each Senator to decide.
Adding to the fragile nature of the debate, Boxer said even the bills sponsors could reject the measure during floor debate if certain amendments are adopted or provisions stricken.
Lieberman and Warner need a certain amount to stay on it, and I need certain things to not get off it, and were looking for that sweet spot, said Boxer, after being asked about the prospects for a Warner amendment on nuclear energy that she is likely to oppose.
Because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has signaled a willingness to proceed with an open debate process that would allow Republicans to offer all manner of amendments, some Democrats are concerned that by bringing the bill to the floor, they will be playing into the Senate Republicans hands on issues of rising gas prices and increased taxes.
Republicans have begun a drumbeat that the bill will spark dramatic price increases on gasoline.
Democrats would love to bypass the economic portion of this debate and make it about who supports the environment, but Republicans will be focused on the effect this legislation will have on Americans pocketbooks, one Senate GOP leadership aide said.
GOP Senators are preparing amendments that would undo the measures mandates for cleaner energy if gas prices reach thresholds perhaps $5 a gallon or higher.
At some point possibly next Tuesday senior Democrats acknowledge, Reid might shut down debate on the measure by restricting Republican amendments and filing a motion to close debate.
Boxer and other bill supporters tried to swat down GOP arguments, estimating that gas prices would rise no more than 2 cents a gallon each year as a result of the measure. On Monday, Bush threatened to veto the bill in part because of its potential effect on gas prices.
This is coming from the people who have given us nothing ... but eight years of higher gas prices, said David Sandretti, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. They dont have any credibility on this point.
Despite the internal Democratic disputes, Members and staff are still trying to cobble together a communications strategy that will help them get their message out particularly the notion that passing a global warming bill will be better for Americans going forward than not acting to rein in pollutants and demand for gasoline.
In addition to Boxers rally, Senate Democrats plan to hold daily events highlighting the divergent interests that have signed onto the bill. Today, for example, they plan to hold a press conference with business and labor backers of the bill. Wednesdays event will feature faith-based groups and representatives from the scientific community, while Thursdays event will seek to highlight the measures importance to national security and technological innovation.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have been looking at the Senate action to help them determine whether that chamber will take up a climate change bill this year. Without a Senate catalyst and little enthusiasm for the legislation from House Republicans, House Democrats have slow-walked their bill behind the scenes and might wait until next year if the Senate shelves its effort.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.