Climate bill hinges on Ohio’s Sen. Brown

Sen. Sherrod Brown holds the key to delivering a bloc of Midwestern senators crucial to passing climate change legislation that faces strong bipartisan opposition.

The Ohio liberal has been working diligently behind the scenes on behalf of manufacturers, seeking concessions from two Democrats who share his views on most other policy matters.

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Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) released a draft of their legislation Wednesday, and already Brown has won a few battles. But he and senators from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana and Michigan say there’s still work to be done. Leaving their concerns unanswered could derail one of the Obama administration’s highest priorities.

“They understand a couple big things about this,” Brown said of Boxer and Kerry during a sit-down interview with The Hill. “They don’t get the votes from Midwestern industrial-state senators unless manufacturing is a major component of this.”

Reducing carbon emissions is a major objective for Democrats. President Barack Obama on Wednesday said the Senate bill, which seeks to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, puts Americans “one step closer” to being more energy-independent.

Republicans have blasted that approach as an energy tax that would cost jobs. Complicating matters is the handful of Democrats who have echoed that complaint. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) on Wednesday called the Boxer bill a “disappointing step in the wrong direction.”

In early May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted climate change legislation would be more difficult to pass than healthcare reform, noting that the biggest obstacle would come from Democrats in states “down the middle of this country.”

Brown is weighing all of that while answering questions in his office on the seventh floor of the Hart Building, which until last year was occupied by then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.).

For starters, he thinks the Senate climate change bill needs to invest significantly more to help U.S. manufacturers, which face a competitive disadvantage with companies in China and other countries with less strict environmental rules.

Brown wants Boxer to increase the size of rebates to manufacturers that consume large amounts of energy, and give more assistance to small- and midsized manufacturers trying to retool their businesses to compete in the clean-energy economy.

Perhaps most controversially, Brown wants the Senate to consider imposing tariffs on foreign competitors operating in countries with lax rules for greenhouse gas emissions.

“Carbon dioxide emissions expand if a company closes down in Toledo, Ohio, and moves to Shanghai, where the emissions standards are weaker,” he said. Brown describes this phenomenon as “carbon leakage.”

Democrats such as Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) say they have the same concerns as Brown and acknowledge that he has been a leading advocate for industrial states.

“His voice on manufacturing is really important,” said Stabenow of Brown.

Levin estimated the votes of six to 10 Democrats and “a few Republicans” could depend on what help is given to domestic manufacturers.

“A number of us that come from manufacturing states are determined that those states are going to be treated fairly,” said Levin. “We’ve got to bear this responsibility for the sake of the environment, but it’s got to be shared fairly. I agree with Sherrod Brown.”

Ten Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Obama in August urging that “clean-energy legislation not only address the crisis of climate change, but include strong provisions to ensure the strength and viability of domestic manufacturing.”

Several of those lawmakers said they were reviewing Boxer’s climate bill on Wednesday.

The climate debate presents a tricky problem for Brown, who won election to the Senate in 2006 by campaigning as a liberal populist. He is the most liberal senator from Ohio since the late Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who spent his career fighting what he viewed as the excesses of business.

While Brown is a solid supporter of labor unions, he has teamed up with the business community to protect the interests of manufacturing companies in the climate change debate. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) wrote a letter to Brown last week endorsing his proposal to set up a $30 billion Manufacturing Revolving Loan Fund to help small- and medium-sized businesses restructure their production lines for a new economic landscape.

But Brown says protecting manufacturers is a necessary step to protect workers.

“Climate change has to be substantively a jobs bill and has to be sold as a jobs bill,” said Brown.

Ohio is the quintessential presidential battleground state, and political experts say that Brown’s 2006 election was greatly helped by the growing unpopularity of former President George W. Bush as well as ethics scandals that rocked the Ohio Republican establishment.

Since winning election, Brown has tacked somewhat toward the center of the political spectrum, said Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University specializing in electoral politics.

“He’s had to represent the whole state, and he’s had a very visible presence in rural areas in small towns,” said Beck, who added: “Ohio is very middle-of-the-road.”

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While climate change legislation isn’t popular among many Republicans, Democrats from industrial parts of the state such as Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown are worried that new restrictions will add to the pressures on communities that have struggled mightily as manufacturing jobs have steadily eroded.

“Climate change is a tough issue for Ohio Democrats,” said Beck. “In his heart of hearts, Brown would want to be more supportive of the Democrats’ plans, but the electorate is holding him back.”

Brown acknowledges this, to an extent. He says that he primarily sees climate change as “a moral issue for the next number of generations, but my second-biggest interest is that it’s really about jobs and manufacturing — we can do it that way.”

Jim Snyder contributed to this article.