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Personalities Tested on Climate Change

Senate Democrats are hopeful that despite their acrimonious past, Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) can find middle ground on climate change legislation before electoral politics kills the issue for good next year.

Boxer and Baucus will be at the center of the looming climate change debate. Environment and Public Works took up Boxer’s bill on Tuesday and is expected to mark it up in the next several weeks. Although Baucus has been focused on health care reform, he has a team of staff on the Finance Committee working to craft a bill in the next several months.

Divisions between the two chairmen, both of whom have jurisdiction over the issue, are not new: Baucus was viewed as one of Boxer’s biggest obstacles to passing climate change legislation two years ago. Although he has long backed the use of a cap-and-trade program to combat global warming, Baucus in 2007 balked at Boxer’s legislation, preferring a more modest approach.

The Senators’ conflict — Baucus leans moderate while Boxer is decidedly liberal — seemed to surface once again on Tuesday during the first day of hearings on Boxer’s climate change bill. Baucus, who serves on both committees, said he has “serious reservations” with the bill, especially a provision requiring a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions.

“We cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change but we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of legislation,” he said.

Baucus and Boxer are representative of the broader ideological divide in the Conference, one that has been in full view during this year’s health care debate.

According to a number of Democratic aides, Baucus speaks for a number of moderate Senators who are not on EPW, as well as those who hail from coal-producing regions that would be most affected by the bill, such as Sens. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Mark Warner (Va.).

And while Democrats acknowledge Boxer and Baucus’ differences on the issue will be difficult to overcome, they hope to avoid some of the same intraparty battles that have marked the health care debate.

Democratic aides said Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), the primary co-sponsor of Boxer’s climate bill, have tried to serve as go-betweens for liberals and moderates on the issue.

Kerry said this week he will likely sit down with Baucus to discuss the Montana Democrat’s concerns and that he remains confident a bill can be moved through the chamber.

Although the health care debate has slowed progress on climate change, Kerry said he and Boxer believe there is increasing momentum for legislation to move this Congress. While health care “certainly is effecting timing, there’s no question about that ... [We are] steadily building momentum,” Kerry said.

One Democratic aide also noted that Baucus has been heavily involved in EPW’s work on the issue and that he has met with Boxer several times to discuss the legislation, creating a dialogue that should help make the eventual negotiations between the two committees easier.

Boxer has also shown an ability to work with ideological adversaries such as EPW ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on infrastructure bills, but Democrats privately said this week that there is concern about friction between Boxer and Baucus.

One aide said that in order for any final climate change bill to gain 60 votes, Boxer must acknowledge that while she may be able to move an aggressive bill through her committee, she will need to take a more moderate approach on the floor.

“On EPW, unlike Finance, there aren’t a lot of moderates,” the aide said. “But it’s clear there’s tons of moderates in the Conference.”

“When, and if, climate change gets to the floor, 20 percent isn’t the most important number, 60 is. There’s a wide variety of Democrats who want to get legislation passed, but can’t sell the current bill back home. A few changes and this thing sails, but if Boxer won’t compromise and it stays the same, it’s dead on arrival. The last thing we need is to have one more setback that could doom climate change legislation for good.”

In another wrinkle, Democrats said liberals are increasingly concerned that Baucus will handle the climate debate similar to the way he handled health care, which caused resentment from the party’s left wing.

One Democratic aide noted that Baucus’ decision to take a “black box” approach to negotiating his version of the health care bill — he huddled behind closed doors with an small bipartisan group — angered a number of the Conference’s liberals. “People were very, very frustrated,” the aide said, adding that it may not be viable for Baucus to take the same sort of approach to the climate bill.

But despite those concerns, Democrats said they are still optimistic that differences between the party’s two ends — and between Boxer and Baucus — can be worked out on President Barack Obama’s No. 2 domestic issue.

“If we can’t get it together completely in the committee, I’m confident we can get it together on the floor,” said Carper, who serves on both the Finance and EPW committees.

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