Liberal House Democrats are shifting their political tactics on climate change after failing to secure a public option in the new healthcare reform law.
The move comes in the wake of liberals having to walk back threats that they would vote against a healthcare bill without a government-run program.
"Drawing the line in the sand too quickly was part of the lesson we learned on healthcare," the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), told The Hill.
Grijalva voiced strong concerns about the direction of the climate and energy bill, which has moved toward the center as Democrats try to build a bipartisan consensus that can win 60 Senate votes. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are leading the effort in the upper chamber to pass a comprehensive bill.
A cap-and-trade program, which was included in the House bill that passed last year, is likely to be jettisoned, and President Barack Obama disappointed liberals last week by announcing his support for expanding offshore oil drilling. The president's decision was seen as a move to garner the support of conservative Democrats and Republicans who would be open to voting for a comprehensive climate and energy measure.
"It's moving away from what was already a series of compromises in the House," Grijalva said of the Senate legislation.
A group of 45 House Democrats, all members of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC), sent a letter late last month to congressional leaders, urging them to retain strong caps on carbon emissions. But the missive notably did not include any threat to oppose a stripped-down bill.
The letter stated only that the coalition "feels that it is of the highest priority that any comprehensive energy legislation includes reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to spur investment in American clean energy technologies, and is consistent with reduction targets in the House-passed legislation."
That stands in contrast to the language used last August in the healthcare debate, when 60 House Democrats signed a letter stating plainly that they could not vote for a bill that lacked a public option. Eight months later, every House liberal backed the final legislation even though the public option had been discarded.
The energy debate will be very different.
The co-chairman of SEEC, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), said in a statement that the coalition members were "very encouraged by the bipartisan work to get an energy bill in the Senate."
"With this letter," Inslee said, "SEEC is stating that it is essential that a comprehensive energy bill includes greenhouse gas emissions targets and durable mechanisms to ensure those targets are achieved."
Other House lawmakers have also refrained from specific threats on climate change legislation, in a nod to the political reality of the Senate confirmed by the healthcare debate.
"We learned that the Senate does not always - in fact doesn't ever - take the work that the House has done," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a vice chairman of SEEC.
Holt added that while it was essential to put a price on carbon and invest heavily in new energy research, "you have to be willing to compromise."
The House bill was crafted by the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and the chairman of the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Markey released an approving statement after Obama's offshore drilling announcement, saying the decision "demonstrates his commitment to a comprehensive view of our energy policy." Asked to comment on the direction of the Senate bill, a Markey spokesman, Eben Burnham-Snyder, said only that the chairman wanted the Senate to pass legislation "that can be merged with Waxman-Markey so the Congress can send a bill to the president this year."
Environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have kept up the push for a far-reaching climate bill that includes a cap on carbon emissions and strong reduction targets. The Sierra Club's executive director, Mike Brune, told The Hill last month that the organization would actively oppose a bill that provided too many concessions to big industry groups.
The environmental groups have also taken pains to point out the political differences between healthcare and energy policy, where the geographical cleavages can be as important as the ideological differences. "Climate has always been a bipartisan issue," Sierra spokesman Josh Dorner said.
The willingness of liberal Democrats to fight for a strong climate bill could set up a clash with the party's base, which was already disheartened by the loss of the public option battle and the perception that liberals were outgunned by the conservative Blue Dogs.
"Progressives drawing a line in the sand for the public option was not the problem. Being weak and not sticking by their line in the sand was the problem," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Their credibility will be less than the Blue Dogs' in every future policy battle until progressives draw a line in the sand and refuse to cave. If the climate bill is co-opted by oil companies, coal companies and other polluters, that may be a good place to start."