The latest talk on the Hill has it that climate legislation has no chance this year, given the bandwidth consumed by high jobless numbers, financial reform, a healthcare debate hanging around like an unwanted in-law, and the starboard turn of 2010 electoral politics.
The conventional wisdom is that the Senate will settle for a small-bore, energy-only bill and call it a day.
Senator Lindsey Graham, who articulates the energy stakes facing America better than anyone in government today, slapped that notion down hard in a February 3 talk to business leaders visiting D.C.:
If the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill and say that’s moving the ball down the road, forget it with me.
Senator Graham, who’s out on a precarious limb negotiating a climate and energy deal that can seize 60 votes, is not in the Rahm-like habit of indulging casually in crude metaphors. There was good reason, however, for him to push the needle into the vocabulary red zone.
Looking left, he sees calcium dissolving around the Democrats’ spinal cords.
Looking right, he sees my way or the highway Republicans who need reminding that they’re still 19 votes short of being able to dictate energy policy entirely on their terms.
Out in blogland and talk radio, the climate change debate has taken on quasi-theological overtones – angels-dancing-on-pinheads food fights about climatology esoterica that most in the political and media worlds are spectacularly unqualified to pass definitive judgment on.
If Frank Luntz’s latest poll is on the mark, such squabbles are a sideshow to workaday worries about jobs, clean air, and freeing America from Middle Eastern oil – the cash register of terrorism.
Luntz’s numbers show that if people were convinced that a climate and energy package could solve those problems, they would be inclined to back it – regardless of what they believe about climate change.
The road forward on jobs, energy security, and environmental stewardship, Graham is telling anyone who will listen, is a grand bargain on climate and energy.
Given the Senate’s makeup, the grand bargain necessarily would have to include elements that the purity potentates at both ends of the spectrum wouldn’t care for.
Democrats would have to swallow more nuclear power incentives and expanded production of domestic fossil fuels. The MoveOn legions already have commenced baying at the prospect.
Republicans would have to accept a price on carbon emissions. Watch for veins to start throbbing in many temples within the Tea Party brigades.
The linchpin of the deal that Graham wants is the carbon price, which would serve as a driver for expanding nuclear power, cleaning up coal, and diversifying America’s energy portfolio, thus spurring economic growth and lessening the strategic liabilities of oil dependence.
As he put it in his talk to the business leaders: “I don’t think you’ll ever have energy independence the way I want it until you start dealing with carbon pollution and pricing carbon. The two are connected in my view – very much connected.”
A grand bargain, by definition, could only work as a package deal. Graham knows how tempting it would be for lawmakers to talk themselves into playing small ball – picking the issue apart, settling for the easy stuff, eating dessert, passing on the vegetables, and saving the unpopular decisions for mythical future lawmakers who supposedly will have the will and willingness to play the long game that the present generation supposedly lacks.
If Congress yields to that temptation, then watch China run up the score in creating jobs, industries, and export opportunities in energy technology, Graham warns: “Every day we wait in this nation, China is going to eat our lunch.”
And, Graham might have added, don’t count on China being half-assed about it.