In an already challenging election year for the majority, Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) rush to pass a climate change bill has many Democrats scratching their heads and charging that their 2004 presidential nominee could further imperil vulnerable Members this fall.
Climate change had been considered all but dead this year, and Senate Democrats have little appetite to take up the controversial issue after the beating that they have endured over their as-yet-unfinished health care reform efforts.
"The United States Senate is not going to transition from doing health care to a [global warming] bill," one Democratic Senator said. "It's not going to happen."
But that's not what Kerry believes. He said last week that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is "determined to bring it to the floor."
The divide in the Democratic caucus reared its head last Wednesday when Kerry — who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee — gave a presentation to his fellow chairmen on his progress in drafting a new bill with Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Sources familiar with the meeting said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) challenged Kerry, who asserted that his new bill should be done this year because it would be bipartisan and would allow Democrats to get around having to tackle the controversial cap-and-trade issue.
Dorgan was upset that the so-far failed efforts of Kerry and Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to craft a bipartisan global warming bill were needlessly delaying action on a separate, bipartisan measure that includes many "green energy" initiatives that Kerry and Boxer want to attach to a climate bill. Bingaman, who wants to move on climate change, was more concerned that a failure to do a broader global warming bill would prevent the Senate from passing the targeted energy bill separately. The committee approved that narrower measure last year.
"While [Bingaman] certainly would like to see the committee-reported bill ... become law, he's not among those urging Sen. Reid to take up and pass an energy-only bill," Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker said. "Bingaman remains open to any climate proposal that is workable, can gain the necessary level of bipartisan support, become law and lower U.S. carbon emissions."
Kerry and Dorgan, as well as Wicker, declined to discuss the private dust-up.
Though Kerry has argued he has new momentum for a global warming bill given his collaboration with Lieberman and Graham — Kerry previously co-authored the bill that passed Boxer's committee last fall — Democrats of all stripes said the political risks of taking up such an explosive issue are too great.
"It is laughable if Kerry and Boxer think Senate Republicans are going to pass a major environmental bill and have [President Barack] Obama sign it right before the midterm elections," one Senate Democratic source said. "They make Don Quixote look like a realist."
Indeed, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said doing climate change would "absolutely" be a gift to the GOP in an election year in which they already feel they are riding a tide of angry voter sentiment against Democrats.
"It would be, I think, further gasoline on the fire," he said.
Cornyn added that Graham's bipartisan stamp would not stop him from branding the issue a "job-killer."
"I just hope Sen. Graham doesn't provide cover for a really bad idea," he said.
During House passage of a cap-and-trade bill last year, Republicans successfully tarred the measure as a de facto "energy tax"; the criticism many House Democrats weathered last summer over their votes for the bill have made Senate Democrats doubly cautious about embarking on a similar path.
Graham said that he understands the political pressures facing his party this year but that the bill he is currently working on with Lieberman and Kerry would not create a cap-and-trade system of limiting carbon emissions. It would instead treat each energy sector differently, he said.
"If this is about denying the other side a victory, then we're all going to lose up here, because people are pretty sick of that," Graham said.
He acknowledged, however, that several pieces must fall into place in order for the effort to succeed, including broad buy-in from business groups and environmentalists alike.
"It's got to be good business politics, it's got to be good job creation and it's got to be seen by the American public as helping the economy, not hurting it," Graham said.
Reid has given Kerry until the Easter recess to come up with a bill, even though sources said the Majority Leader is dubious of bringing up such a political lightning rod in a crucial election year.
Boxer, who supports Kerry's efforts, said Reid has only promised to bring up a climate change measure if supporters can secure a filibuster-proof vote for it.
"If we get 60 votes for it, we'll take it up. If we don't, we can't. That's my understanding with Sen. Reid," Boxer said last week. "So that's going to be the goal, to get to 60. ... If we don't, there would be no point."
Reid spokesman Jim Manley did not dispute Kerry's assertion that his boss is "determined" to act this year on climate change, but he noted that the Senate schedule is pretty full already.
"We have a lot on our plate," Manley said. "We have to finish reforming health insurance and Wall Street, and also must help bring Americans out of unemployment. But we are not so busy that we can't find the time to address comprehensive energy and climate legislation."
Democratic sources said Graham's involvement was crucial to getting a bill, but that he is so far the only Republican who is negotiating with Kerry. Plus, many centrist Democrats and those from coal-producing states remain skeptical of any global warming proposal.
"The problem is not how many Republicans you pick up, it's how many Democrats you lose," one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Indeed, liberal Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) last week introduced a bill to force a two-year delay on any Environmental Protection Agency rules regulating carbon emissions from power plants.
Meanwhile, moderate Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said that while he is keeping an open mind about the new Kerry bill, "it seems to be a hard sell in my state to try to get that done this year."
But Kerry said that all the talk about a lack of enthusiasm for climate change is overblown and that his effort has strong momentum.
"This is a jobs bill. It's energy independence and pollution reduction, and I think there's going to be a bipartisan appetite to do what we're trying to do because we're building a very strong coalition," he said. "People don't know what they're referring to when they say, No appetite,' or We can't do this.' ... People just need to wait and see what it is before they decide whether it's a heavy lift or not."