Senate Climate Bill Likely Doomed by Republican's About-Face

For months, the climate bill has limped along, short on political supporters and ever more unpopular in public, with detractors positioning it as another economic hardship to add to the ongoing downturn. Yet it continued to stay afloat -- until Saturday, when the idea of the bill seemed to suddenly, and permanently collapse.

In a way, it was a straw that broke the camel's back. More accurately, the cause was the breaking of a key support column beneath an already shaky edifice. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, was that support. As the only Republican in the entire Senate, and possibly also the House, who was actively working for the climate bill, Graham's help in securing passage was indispensable.

But Graham has also been looking increasingly spooked by the anti-government political climate. On Saturday, as Democratic senators talked about switching their focus to immigration reform, Graham suddenly pulled away from the climate bill:

Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who had allied himself with Kerry on the issue, abruptly abandoned the effort last night, saying he was irate that the Senate's Democratic leadership might proceed with a controversial immigration bill first.

"Moving forward on immigration -- in this hurried, panicked manner -- is nothing more than a cynical political ploy," Graham said. "I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress."

The sudden switch of priorities began late last week when Senate majority leader Harry Reid suggested to other congressional leaders that he might want to tackle immigrant legislation before the Senate deals with climate change.

As panic over Graham's withdrawal spread, several news publications tried to get an angle on the senator's break with senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, who together with Graham built the bill on top of previous efforts. Speaking to the Washington Post, Graham sounded less angry about the haste in addressing immigration, and more politically calculating:
"I've got some political courage, but I'm not stupid," Graham said in an interview Saturday. "The only reason I went forward is, I thought we had a shot if we got the business and environmental community behind our proposal, and everybody was focused on it. What's happened is that firm, strong commitment disappeared." ...

Graham said he worried his colleagues were being "overly optimistic" in describing business support for the measure, and he lashed out at the decision by anonymous administration officials to tell Fox News earlier this month that they opposed the idea of a fee on the transport sector linked to the price of carbon, which quickly became labeled a gas tax. "I should have walked when I saw that story," he said.

Of course, the fact that Graham hung onto the climate bill for months, going against his party's unspoken policy of unwavering resistance to any Democratic policy proposal, suggests that Graham has a personal attachment to the bill. A relatively uncynical viewer might assume that Graham believes climate change is a real problem that must be addressed, regardless of partisanship.

If that's indeed the case, Graham has now shown that his idea of the common good is offset by his instinct for political survival. Reports over the weekend held conflicting opinions over whether he will return to the climate bill; though it should be noted that senator Lieberman, at least, seems confident that Graham can be enticed back.

But whatever happens, the climate bill is looking shakier than ever. For those who unequivocally oppose any action on greenhouse gases, that uncertainty could turn out either good or bad; as my colleague Kirsten Korosec wrote last week, the failure of the congressional climate bill could simply leave the issue to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has its own plans for enforcement.

For now, we'll have to wait and see whether the bill, which was supposed to be unveiled today, can be revived. If not, the climate bill will probably be off-limits until some time after the November elections -- at this point, the entire issue is likely beginning to look like a career-killer to politicians in both parties.

[Image credit: Wikimedia Commons]