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Boxer’s Hot 2008 Issue

Chairwoman Wants Climate Change to Impact the Presidential Race

As she looks to shepherd a bill to reduce the effects of global warming, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) hopes to use her position to ensure that climate change becomes a pivotal issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Anticipating strong opposition from the current White House on most Democratic-sponsored greenhouse gas reduction bills, Boxer said in an interview Tuesday that she hopes to pass as many bills as possible, including a comprehensive climate change measure, not only to pressure President Bush to sign a bill but also to keep the issue hot on the campaign trail.

“If the president chooses to veto a bill, that sets it up as a huge issue in the presidential” election, Boxer said. “So we will do our best to get as many bills on his desk as we can that deal with greenhouse gas reduction. … I think it’s key that we do that, because I do want to set it up for the presidential [campaign], which is another one of my goals.”

Other Democrats said it’s a strategy with win-win prospects.

“She wins either way, because she either gets a bill [signed by Bush] or she gets a veto and she can hammer the hell out of them” during the campaign season, said one senior Senate Democratic aide. The aide added that Democrats, including Boxer, are hoping they simply can force the current president’s hand.

“I think they’re hoping that it becomes a groundswell and that it just overwhelms everything else,” the aide said.

But Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he has long suspected that Democrats simply want to hold the issue out for political gain, and he warned that Boxer should expect a loss of momentum if she waits too long to craft a comprehensive, economy-wide bill.

“I think she thinks that if she can keep this issue alive and make this an issue in ’08, that it will accrue to her benefit. I disagree with that strategy,” said Inhofe, an ardent opponent of climate change legislation. “Every day that goes by, we pick up more people [who are skeptical of global warming]. … I think time is in our favor more than Barbara Boxer thinks it’s in her favor.”

Unlike her House counterparts, who have been given a June deadline for action by Democratic leaders, Boxer has refused to give a timeline for her committee to act on a comprehensive package — not necessarily because she is waiting for the 2008 presidential campaign to go into full swing but because she does not yet have the necessary votes among the panel’s Democrats to move forward.

Though she declined to say whether she was focusing on any particular Members, Boxer acknowledged that she has yet to secure the votes for passage.

“There’s no difficulty. I just have to get the votes,” she said. She added later, “If we can do it with all Democrats, we will.”

Boxer said she has been holding a series of strategy sessions with interested Senators on a comprehensive bill while working to try to gain the White House’s support for a number of less ambitious bills, such as one to improve energy efficiency at federal office buildings.

“I sense that we’re making progress,” she said. “What I think that people don’t realize is that there are so many ways to make progress. Everyone’s focused on, if you don’t have one big bill, you don’t make progress. That’s false. We do need to have a very major bill, but … the good news is there’s so much low-hanging fruit.”

She added, “Until I have the votes on [an economy-wide] bill that I consider goes far enough, then we will vote it out. We will also have other confidence-building measures that will [address] the reduction of greenhouse gases.”

But it may be her focus on those smaller measures that has been frustrating some in the environmental community and even a few Senate Democrats.

Activists and Democratic aides said Boxer’s approach to the issue might be creating a leadership vacuum that is being filled by other Members, such as Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and others.

“It really does seem to be time for the chairwoman and staff to put out the marching orders,” said one activist.

Other Democrats said Boxer also has shown inflexibility on incorporating industry concerns into any comprehensive global warming bill.

“The chairwoman thinks it’s her way or the highway, and at some point she’s going to have to consult with a broader group of Senators,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “She has not shown a real willingness to do that.”

But Boxer said her strategy is to bring as many people to the table as possible.

“When you’re trying to get broad support, you need to share the responsibility of governing,” she said of creating two different Environment and Public Works subcommittees to deal with climate change while a third still has jurisdiction over clean air regulations.

Right now, Boxer’s biggest obstacle to passage of an economy-wide climate change bill appears to be Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), several Democratic aides and environmental activists confirmed.

“Everyone will support climate change legislation right now, except Baucus,” said the knowledgeable Senate Democratic staffer of the Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Frank O’Donnell, an environmental activist with Clean Air Watch, said it’s no surprise that Baucus, who is up for re-election in 2008 and has strong coal industry interests in his state, has become a problem for Boxer.

“Baucus is a guy with a record,” O’Donnell said. “In the years running up to an election campaign, he’s pretty conservative when it comes to the environment.”

A Baucus aide, however, said the Montanan actually supports the approach favored by many Democrats, which is to require lower emissions but allow companies to exceed those caps if they buy credits from lower emissions producers — a system known as cap and trade. However, the aide emphasized that Baucus is concerned that the bill take into account coal interests.

Regardless of whether Baucus comes on board, O’Donnell noted that Boxer needs committee Republicans, such as moderate Sens. John Warner (Va.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), to support the bill as well if she is going to have any chance of passing a broad climate change bill on the floor.

“Generally, you’re better off if you could have a bipartisan group rather than if it’s a straight party-line vote,” he said.

Indeed, the knowledgeable Senate Democratic staffer said Warner “is a person who can craft a deal,” and he has indicated at committee hearings that he is interested in addressing climate change.

And while Alexander continues to support legislation with Carper to limit emissions of nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury, he said he’s not “willing to go economy-wide, because I don’t think we know what we’re doing.”

But Boxer said she is optimistic.

“I’m really not focusing on any particular member of the committee right now. I’m just taking into account everybody’s concerns … and having hearings that address those concerns,” she said. “We’re setting the stage in a very deliberate way.”

Geof Koss of CongressNow contributed to this report.

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