By Ben Geman - 01/28/10 02:35 PM EST
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is urging climate change activists to match the intensity of their conservative opponents as he struggles to keep the issue on the election-year agenda.
“I want you to go out there and start knocking on doors and talking to people and telling people, ‘This has to happen!’ ” Kerry said at a forum hosted by environmentalists, veterans and others Wednesday.
He added: “That’s something worth getting angry about. And I think it’s time for people to do that.”
Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, has claimed ownership of climate legislation for the Democrats. He has stepped outside the committee process to negotiate a compromise package of emissions caps and energy measures with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
His speech Wednesday is part of a flurry of activity as Kerry tries to keep climate change legislation — once a top priority for Capitol Hill Democrats — afloat in 2010.
The trio of senators has held a slew of meetings, including sessions with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last week. The three legislators also engaged in talks Tuesday with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who are sponsoring a competing plan.
But while emissions caps have been embraced by the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, prospects for climate legislation remain highly uncertain. Democrats are still reeling from Republican Scott Brown’s stunning win in Kerry’s home state, and they’re focusing heavily on the economy and jobs.
Kerry and other backers say the climate bill would help on both fronts (and that doing nothing ultimately costs more), but Republican and industry opponents of cap-and-trade say it’s a job-killer.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is facing a challenging reelection race, has sent mixed signals on climate change. At one point, he called moving the bill “a headache.” But Reid said in mid-January that he plans to bring a “comprehensive” climate and energy bill to the floor this spring.
Beth Viola, who advised Kerry in his 2004 presidential run, said, “I think [Kerry] is fiery because he feels really passionately about the fact that we have a real global crisis — the economic impacts as well as the environmental impacts are potentially quite significant.
“I suspect he is probably pretty anxious to see people make the case for the legislation as loudly as those who are making the case against it,” added Viola, who worked on environmental issues in the Clinton White House and is now a senior adviser with Holland & Knight.
Kerry has an aggressive agenda for his committee this year. But the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who was criticized by the GOP that year for his lack of big-ticket legislative accomplishments, has zeroed in on climate change.
The 66-year-old senator sharpened his tone in several ways during his speech on Wednesday. While he laid out familiar arguments that climate and energy legislation will help expand U.S. alternative-energy sectors and boost private investment, he also injected a hint of populism.
But Kerry’s task is complex because he has concluded that winning emissions limits will require several concessions to industry and Republicans. The plan he is crafting with Graham and Lieberman will likely contain an expansion of offshore drilling and large new subsidies for building nuclear power plants.
Indeed, Graham on Wednesday emphasized the need for a business-friendly approach.
The South Carolina Republican called the sweeping cap-and-trade bill the House approved — and a similar plan that Kerry himself co-sponsored with Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — dead on arrival.
“The climate change legislation passed by the House of Representatives and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is too onerous on business and does not enjoy bipartisan support,” Graham said.
“My goal is to continue working with Sens. Kerry, Lieberman and my Senate colleagues to create a new pathway forward that focuses on a more robust energy security package and a more business-friendly climate legislation,” he continued.
Many large environmental groups have signaled that they’re open to compromises to win long-sought limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
But compounding Kerry's challenge is that a number of centrist Senate Democrats – including Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) – want the chamber to take up a package of energy measures that omits emissions caps. They’re eyeing a bill the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved in June.
That broad bill includes new renewable energy requirements, expanded federal financing for low-carbon energy technologies, wider Gulf of Mexico oil-and-gas drilling and several energy efficiency programs.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) signaled his support for the “energy-only” approach Wednesday. “I would probably prefer just an energy bill, but what I have told everybody is I will be patient and listen and see what they come up with. If it does have climate change in it, I will wait and see what’s in there,” he said.