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Milloy: We’re in a Lame-Duck Political Climate

Who would have guessed that 18 months into the Obama administration and a nearly filibuster-proof, Democratic-controlled Congress that cap-and-trade would still be just a green dream? Not many. But then not many people would probably think there’s enough time or political will to make cap-and-trade happen in the time remaining for this session of Congress. That’s wrong, too.

[IMGCAP(1)]Since its high-water mark of House passage of the Waxman-Markey bill late in June 2009, it’s been all downhill for cap-and-trade. The health care debate delayed a Senate bill, and the tea party movement made cap-and-trade one of its top targets. By the time the Kerry-Boxer bill was introduced last October, the Republican Members of Chairman Barbara Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee felt secure enough to boycott the committee vote on the bill, rendering the unanimous Democratic committee vote meaningless.

The continuing inquisition of the health care bill helped bring about the election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts and the evaporation of the Democrats’ 60-vote, filibuster-proof margin. When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) dared work with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on a cap-and-trade bill, the political blowback for Graham was so strong that he looked for the first excuse out, which came in the form of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s supposed prioritization of the immigration bill over cap-and-trade. The Kerry-Lieberman bill has now been relegated to perhaps being offered as a mere amendment to a Senate energy bill, the main focus of which may be the BP oil spill.

Competing with the Kerry-Lieberman bill are the so-called cap-and-dividend bill by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and the bill by Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) that attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through any means but cap-and-trade. Recent discussions about a cap-and-trade bill include limiting it to electric utilities rather than being economywide.

Even President Barack Obama seems lost when it comes to cap-and-trade. Although he emphasized the need to transform to a “clean energy” economy during his recent Oval Office speech on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he was painfully short on details of how to get there, garnering him criticism from prominent carbon cap proponents. Cap-and-trade is so out of favor that its supporters are trying to rebrand it as anything else — including clean energy, “green energy” and “a price on carbon.”

Regardless of branding, expecting the Senate to take a tough vote on cap-and-trade and expecting House Democrats to double down on their Waxman-Markey vote before the November midterms is wishful thinking by any political calculus.

The foregoing aside, cap-and-trade is more of a threat now than ever, thanks to the November-December lame-duck session of Congress.

First, it’s useful to keep in mind the two main lessons from the health care debate — public opinion is not determinative in whether a bill passes Congress, and the Democratic leadership in Congress is willing to bend its rules any which way to pass leadership priorities.

Next, this Congress could be the last chance for cap-and-trade, whatever it’s called in the end. At the very least, Republicans are likely to make significant gains in the House and Senate. Cap-and-trade supporters would have to start all over in the next session of Congress, and the Waxman-Markey bill that squeaked by last June will not likely do so again.

That means cap-and-trade advocates are desperate and could resort to desperate procedural moves in a Congress where lame ducks have nothing to lose and, possibly, everything to gain by voting for their future employers, whether they be the Obama administration, cushy nongovernmental organizations jobs, lobbying firms or industry beneficiaries of cap-and-trade.

But won’t cap-and-trade need 60 Senate votes to pass while Reid can only produce 59 at most? Yes and no.

While Senate Republicans have held together on climate so far — consider their unanimous vote against Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases — Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Collins and several others are on record as supporting some action on climate. While some Senate Democrats have opposed cap-and-trade so far, including Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), there’s a lot of money sloshing around cap-and-trade that could easily become the next Cornhusker Kickback or Louisiana Purchase.

But who says Reid needs 60 votes in the first place? Sixty votes weren’t needed for health care. Who is to say that Reid can’t decide that cap-and-trade somehow fits under Senate budget reconciliation rules or some other procedural twist of Senate rules where only a bare majority wins. Senate rules, after all, are not enforceable in a court of law. Such a rule change would be the ultimate nuclear option, but desperate cap-and-traders may do desperate things.

So what can be done to stop a kamikaze cap-and-trade attack in the lame-duck Congress?

Republican Senate and House candidates need to make the lame-duck possibility a campaign issue. They should pressure incumbent Democratic Senate candidates to pledge they will not take action on cap-and-trade in a lame-duck session. House Democratic candidates should be pressured to express a similar sentiment in hopes that Senate Democrats who are up for election in 2012 will get the message that a lame-duck vote for cap-and-trade will be held against them next time.

There may be a reason that President Obama was silent on how he planned to press for cap-and-trade during his Oval Office address — he didn’t want to let the lame duck out of the bag.

Steve Milloy publishes and is the author of “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them.”

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