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Why Max Baucus' 'No' Vote on the Climate Bill May Really Help Its Passage

By appearing to oppose the bill, Baucus may be masterfully (and manipulatively) staging its passage.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) voted against the climate bill as it emerged from committee last week, leading many to fret about the bill's chances. Yet Baucus himself is optimistic. How can this be?

It suggests a strategy not unlike the one Democrats just used to pass health-care reform in the House:

While the opposition spent itself hollering about Nazis, socialism and death panels at health-care town halls and on Fox News, the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration retreated from the public option. Many pundits declared the public option dead.

Alas, no sooner was it dead than the House passed health-care legislation that includes a public option.

As these events transpire in the day to day, the media report a resurrection: The public option is back! But it seems more likely to me that the initial retreat was a feint, designed to dilute the energy of the opposition by seeming to withdraw a threat.

Likewise with Max Baucus's no vote on the climate bill:

The Senate's version of cap and trade, also  prematurely declared dead, passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week with no Republican input. Eleven Democrats supported it. For casting the lone no vote, Baucus earned the scorn of environmentalists like Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth:

Too many senators are siding with special interests instead of advocating solutions that are in the public interest. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who today voted ‘no' while making the absurdly contradictory claims that he wants to fight climate change but that this bill is too strong, is one such senator.

Baucus said the bill's initial target, a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, is too high, and he'd prefer a 17 percent target, which just happens to be the goal set by the bill that passed the House this summer.

The 3 percent difference gives Democrats room to negotiate–more precisely, it gives Democrats room to appear to negotiate–but it amounts to little over the life of the bill. According to the EPA analysis of the two bills:

While the 2020 caps differ, the caps start out the same in 2012, and are identical between 2030 and 2050. Cumulatively, the caps differ by just one percent over four decades. Both of the bills cover the same sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Both bills place limits on offsets that are not expected to be binding. Both bills allow offsets from a broad array of agriculture and forestry sources. Both bills allow unlimited banking of allowances. Both bills have output-based rebate provisions designed to reduce emissions leakage and address competitiveness concerns for energy intensive and trade exposed industries. Because of these many similarities and the relatively small differences between the two bills, it is likely that a full analysis of S. 1733 would show economic impacts very similar to H.R. 2454.

via EPA S 1733 Analysis (pdf)

Why raise the 2020 goal when it hardly matters by 2050? It creates the appearance that the Senate bill is stronger than the House bill, so senators can then appear to compromise by settling, in the end, for what appears to be a weaker bill. In fact, all these degrees of strength and weakness are largely illusory.

When the bill came out the media played along, emphasizing the easy number, reporting the Senate bill is stronger than the House version. (See, for example, " Senate's climate bill a bit more ambitious," in the Washington Post). That may have emboldened Republicans to boycott the committee vote, demanding a new, unnecessary, cost analysis from the EPA, but it also set up the Democrat's final compromise, which doesn't require any Republicans at all.

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