Liberal activists say good riddance to Kerry-Lieberman climate legislation

Liberal and environmental activists say that Democrats will not suffer in November because of their failure to pass Senate climate change legislation.

Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, an advocacy group founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, said liberal voters are happy that a climate bill sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was shelved.

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“The reality is that the base didn’t have a lot at stake in the climate bill,” said Chamberlain.

“After the BP disaster, all we’ve heard from our members, the No. 1 issue is climate change and offshore oil drilling and oil,” he said. “But we polled our members about whether we should be fighting for the bill and it wasn’t even close. The answer was no.”

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a liberal environmental advocacy group, said the Kerry-Lieberman bill was full of gifts to the oil, coal and nuclear industries.

“The way they were going to give away free emission permits instead of set[ting] up an auction system, which [President] Obama had campaigned on,” said O’Donnell, “that was massive giveaway.”

Kerry and Lieberman had also agreed to expand offshore oil- and natural-gas drilling before the BP spill made such a concession politically unpalatable.

“They weren’t going to step up to Big Oil; they were in lockstep with Big Oil until the disaster hit,” O’Donnell said.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, criticized the Kerry-Lieberman as a policy cave-in to energy companies. He urged Senate Democrats to pass a strong bill regulating offshore drilling.

“Given that the energy bill was already a big capitulation to polluters, the failure to move it will not exacerbate the enthusiasm gap that was already there due to its underlying lameness,” Green said. “If Democrats don’t pass a gold-standard bill cracking down on polluters after the BP disaster, that’s plain political malpractice.”

Having set aside climate legislation, Senate Democratic leaders plan to move narrower legislation responding to the Gulf Oil disaster. The measure is expected to place stricter restrictions on drilling and lift the liability cap for companies that cause environmental damage.

President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress made energy and climate change reform their second-ranking domestic initiative, behind healthcare reform and ahead of immigration reform.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it her flagship issue.

Their dream of capping the gases blamed for melting polar ice caps and millennia-old glaciers was finally set aside last week when Senate Democrats admitted they didn’t have enough votes.

The failure raised the specter that it would further discourage liberal Democratic base voters, who have been described as less eager than conservatives to show up at the polls in November.

Democratic political strategists and independent analysts have described an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic base voters.

Liberal activist leaders predicted winning legislative victories in Congress would be the best way to rev up the party base.

“Nothing motivates the base like success; that’s what we need,” Bob Fulkerson, the state director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, told The Hill earlier this month.

Two weeks later, climate change legislation — not to mention comprehensive immigration reform — is considered dead for the year.

But environmental advocates and liberal grassroots leaders say the political fallout will be minimal.

“The core reason I don’t believe the death of the climate bill will dampen turnout in the fall is because no one outside of the enviro groups was ever invested in the bill in the first place, because it was a corporate bill,” said Ilyse Hogue, director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org, a liberal grassroots advocacy group.

“And the enviros will turn out anyway,” she added.

Hogue said Kerry-Lieberman “couldn’t pass because the base wasn’t ever fired up about it from the start.”

“The enthusiasm gap was due to the Democrats beginning negotiations with a series of giveaways to corporate interests in an attempt to appease Blue Dogs,” she said in reference to centrist Democrats who belong to the Blue Dog Coalition.

The death of climate change legislation in the Senate will allow Democratic Party strategists to pin the blame on Republicans.

Because a climate bill will not come to the floor, there will be no way to know for sure how many Democrats would have opposed it. The lack of a floor debate or vote on the legislation may also obscure the concessions to industry that O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch and other liberals complained about.

Democratic lawmakers have emphasized the unwillingness of Republicans to negotiate with them on a bill to address global warming.

On Friday, a Democratic Party committee spokeswoman said the collapse of a legislative effort to cap carbon emissions showed a clear difference between Democrats and Republicans.

“Republicans have been carrying water for the special interests every step of the way and it’s no different this time around,” said Deirdre Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Come November, voters will have a choice between Republicans who shill for the special interests or Democrats who have proven they will stand up to the special interests to help the middle class,” she said.

A Senate debate on climate change legislation could have widened rifts between liberals and centrist Democrats, a problem that some candidates such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) face.

“Some Democrats have let us down and are not delivering on progressive ideals and instead are delivering to the same old special interests, like Wall Street,” Chamberlain said. “Places where there are leaders like Blanche Lincoln, there’s a very depressed base.

“The reverse is true where strong leaders are standing up to special interests,” he said.

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