Kerry, Lieberman, Graham team up to search for middle ground on climate bill

A small group of senators said they would work on a separate track to build support for a climate bill as the Senate panel dealing with global warming legislation remained stuck Wednesday.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — none of whom are members of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee that has split on partisan lines — met with the secretaries of Energy and the Interior and the administration’s “climate czar,” Carol Browner, on Wednesday.

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Kerry said they were beginning a process to broaden support for a climate bill beyond members of the six Senate committees with jurisdiction.

That could mean a bill that emerges from the Senate will include some tough pills to swallow for environmental groups that have been the main force behind crafting legislation to curb so-called greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet.

For example, Lieberman said one focus will be on adding support for the nuclear energy industry by agreeing on what to do with nuclear waste and offering more financial support to build new plants.

Graham, meanwhile, said the climate bill should allow for offshore drilling “in a meaningful way.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bill that would open more of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling.

That measure will likely be fed into the broader climate and energy bill, but Graham suggested that more areas offshore would have to be opened up to oil and gas companies.

Some environmentalists expressed unease about the direction the negotiations were taking, although others said the efforts by Kerry, Graham and Lieberman raise the likelihood a cap on carbon can pass Congress.

“It does seem like Democrats are taking a Creigh Deeds approach to crafting a bill: Abandon your base,” said Nick Berning, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, a group that has criticized climate legislation under consideration in Congress. Deeds was the Democratic candidate who ran as a centrist but lost the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday.

At a news conference Wednesday, Kerry insisted the trio would be “fully respectful” of the committee process and was working with the full support of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose EPW Committee has prime jurisdiction over climate legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will determine “when and how” climate legislation will be introduced, Kerry said.

It wasn’t clear whether the three senators would craft a measure on their own.

An EPW spokesman said Boxer’s main focus now is reporting a bill from her committee.

“Once that is done, she will be part of a team of senators working to move the bill through the United States Senate,” the aide said.

Boxer’s efforts, however, have been temporarily thwarted by a boycott by Republicans on her panel. GOP committee members are demanding a fuller analysis of the bill’s potential costs, although panel Democrats accuse the minority of trying to delay the legislation with an unreasonable request.

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The panel had been scheduled to begin marking up the bill Tuesday. While that delay could push back the timeline for a vote on a climate bill, some of the biggest backers of curbing carbon dioxide took the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman press conference as a positive sign.

“The main news I see from today’s announcement is the addition of Lieberman to the team and their determination and leadership to bring people together and get the job done,” said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation.

Graham, a Republican, has angered some conservative groups with his support of climate legislation, which he detailed in an op-ed co-written with Kerry and published in The New York Times last month.

Graham said Congress had a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to try to stem global warming but also push the United States to the forefront of a new “green economy.”

“The green economy is coming. We can either follow or lead. Those countries that follow will pay the price,” Graham said.

“We don’t have the infrastructure in place to build a green economy, and we never will unless we have a price for carbon,” Graham added.

But he said the climate bill would have to be sensitive to concerns in the business community about climate legislation.

Kerry and Lieberman noted a letter the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent earlier this week to Boxer that called for action on climate legislation this year. The Chamber has come under fire for what some saw as an overly antagonistic stance against climate bills Congress is considering. Four companies quit the Chamber and a fifth, Nike, resigned from its board.
Lieberman called the letter “another turning point”

But the Chamber has disputed that the letter represents a change in its stance. Eric Wohlschlegel, a Chamber spokesman, said the group was just restating its position. The letter does not offer any endorsement of the cap-and-trade system contemplated by the climate bills most likely to pass Congress.