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Lobbyists Tread Over Partisan Minefield

While the health care issue may be dominating Capitol Hill, it’s all about climate change in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

After several years of working on different manifestations of the legislation and failing to get anything passed, the panel is poised to finally get climate change off its plate sometime in the next several months.

The biggest hurdle: partisanship.

Although EPW has long been known for working together and being populated with moderates such as former Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), that is no longer the case. This Congress, there are few moderates from either party on the panel, which makes achieving harmony difficult, according to several lobbyists.

“Compared to other committees, the ideological and geographical distribution just makes reaching a consensus a little harder,— said Joseph Stanko, head of Hunton & Williams’ public policy practice.

That is playing a large part in what the climate bill will look like as it heads to the Senate floor.

“If you look at the list of Republicans who serve on EPW, their leader has chosen them pretty strategically,— one energy lobbyist said, noting that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) looks like a moderate compared to the rest of the panel.

Transportation and water resource issues are the rare exceptions where lawmakers on the committee have been able to work together. With climate change dominating nearly 100 percent of EPW’s agenda, lobbyists say they are trying to work behind the scenes to feel out what provisions may be added after the bill is passed out of committee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the panel, leans far left on much of the climate portfolio. Still, lobbyists say Boxer and the Democratic leadership learned a valuable lesson last year after the failure of the bill on the Senate floor.

While compromise remains elusive, much of the business community has gotten on board in trying to pass a bill.

“Folks are putting a lot of resources from both sides of the debate to try to influence the committee,— said Tyson Slocum, head of Public Citizen’s energy group.

The change in attitude among business interests is largely due to the knowledge that if Congress does not act, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make even more stringent requirements on climate change through rulemaking.

Another big change this time around has been Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) name on the bill as chief sponsor with Boxer. Kerry’s staff has also been playing an active role, attending meetings on all issues, not just the international component, which is in the Massachusetts Democrats’ wheelhouse as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lobbyists say that while they continue to try to work to find consensus on issues, they realize that most of the political maneuvering on different climate change provisions will happen on the floor after the committee has voted.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), a former member of the panel, has already been trying to reach across the aisle on the nuclear provision of the climate change bill. Lieberman, who has long had a pro-nuclear stance, has been reaching out to Republicans such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) and others to try to broker a deal that could prompt more Republicans to support the overall legislation.

Yet even finding a compromise on nuclear energy is hardly expected to be the deal that will garner enough votes for the bill to pass out of the Senate.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that is going to be the trick,— one Republican lobbyist said.

Yet if Lieberman is successful, and other Senators such as Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) can act as a potential bridge in bringing more moderate Democrats such as Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.) on board, then the bill’s prospects could be in better shape.

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