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The Climate Bill Is All But Finished -- But It's Not All Bad News

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This post originally appeared on the Washington Monthly.

What's become of the Senate energy bill is a profound disappointment to anyone who takes policy seriously. It's a shell of its former self, and it's painful to see this rare opportunity to make meaningful progress slip away. It's not that the legislation's remaining provisions are worthless -- there's some decent stuff in there, including Home Star -- but the bill needed to include at least some kind of cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards. It won't.

While there's still some talk about taking another bite at this apple before the next (more hostile) Congress, realistically, most participants in this debate seem pretty certain that nothing more will happen. As such, the circular firing squad is already starting to take aim.

David Roberts noted that as "frustrated" as he is with Democratic leaders for coming up far short, they're not ultimately to blame.

[W]e should be clear about where the bulk of the responsibility for this farce ultimately lies: the Republican Party and a handful of "centrist" Democrats in the Senate. They are the ones who refused to vote for a bill, no matter how many compromises were made, no matter how clear the urgency of the problem. They are moral cowards, condemning their own children and grandchildren to suffering to serve their own narrow electoral interests. There isn't enough contempt in the world for them. So when the anger and recrimination get going -- as they already are -- let's at least try to keep the focus on the real malefactors.

Agreed. In fact, conservatives aren't just rejecting a sound idea -- they're rejecting their own idea. David Leonhardt noted yesterday, "The sad paradox is that cap and trade -- which trusts in the efficiency of markets -- was originally a Republican policy."

The right used to consider cap-and-trade a reasonable, market-based mechanism that was far preferable to command-and-control directives that Republicans found offensive. The idea was embraced by H.W. Bush to reduce acid rain -- and it worked.

But the same mechanism has remained popular with Republicans until very recently. The political seems to have forgotten this, but the official position of the McCain/Palin Republican presidential ticket, not even two years ago, was to support cap-and-trade. Not just in theory, either. The official campaign website in 2008 told Americans that John McCain and Sarah Palin "will establish ... a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions." McCain/Palin's official position added, "A cap-and-trade system harnesses human ingenuity in the pursuit of alternatives to carbon-based fuels."
Democratic policymakers could, today, endorse the policy put forward by the Republican ticket from 2008, and GOP senators would filibuster it. That's what's become of the state of the debate.

So, is all hope lost? When it comes to legislating in 2010, probably. But one of the factors driving the debate on the Hill has been the EPA option hanging over the negotiations like the sword of Damocles: if lawmakers fail to act, the administration will. It's what gives Joe Klein some hope.

[T]here is a Supreme Court ruling, now three years old, that carbon dioxide is a poison that needs to be cleaned up. Next year, the Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating the hell out of Co2. The business community won't like that, nor will many Republicans. "Putting a price on carbon is the only alternative," says Senator Maria Cantwell....

And so, yesterday's death of environmental legislation should be considered a pre-election maneuver. Given a choice between taxes and potentially punitive regulations, the wise -- the more elegant; the less expensive -- choice is a tax every time.

The sooner 60 senators wrap their heads around this, the better.