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

Max Baucus' no vote in the Environment and Public Works Committee establishes Baucus as the bill's credible opposition, the representative of money and industry, especially with Republicans excusing themselves from the process through either the certainty of their opposition or, in the case of a boycott, their literal absence.

Baucus stands in effectively: As the chairman of the Finance Committee, he speaks for money and he holds the requisite sway over the bill's fate. As a Montana Democrat, he publicly subscribes to a particularly conservative brand of environmentalism. The environment tab on Baucus's Senate home page is labeled "Outdoors." On the page he says he fights for the environment so Montanans can continue to shoot at it:

Hiking, hunting, and fishing are an integral part of our heritage. This connection to the outdoors is part of what makes Montana such a great place to live, work, and raise a family. I am committed to protecting Montana's outdoor heritage, so that our children can enjoy it every bit as much as you and I have. That is why I am fighting every day to stop coal mining in the Canadian Flathead, move America towards energy independence, and address climate change.

When Baucus prioritizes practical concerns over starry-eyed green ones, he gains traction at home. He looks less like a hippie out to save the planet, more like a hunter out to bag a moose. But in the end, Baucus supports the climate bill. He's playing a role in a piece of theater that has surely been scripted to produce a final bill that marries the one already produced in the House.

It might be a curious side effect of the objectivity trend in 20th Century American journalism that reporters often end up taking politicians at their word. We almost always report on appearances–for example, that 20 percent is more ambitious than 17 percent–and almost always report politicians' motivations as the politicians state them.

But surely what's spoken in the chamber has been rehearsed in the cloak room, and the fate of most bills is known before they reach the floor.

If you'll permit me a historical illustration: I covered the unjustified rise and resounding kerplunk of  Michael Huffington, Arianna's ex-husband, when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993-95. After buying the House seat for $6 million, Huffington was preparing his ill-fated, self-financed $28 million run against Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Senate.

To run for Senate, Huffington had to toe the Republican line, and both he and Arianna did so ably for those two strange years in the mid-1990s.

But Huffington represented Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, where coastal liberalism thrives just over the mountain from valley conservatism. So to keep peace at home, and to cater to a similar division across the state, Huffington had to appear moderate.

Huffington's ploy was to oppose liberal legislation every step of the way, then vote for it in the final floor tally, which receives the most attention from the press and from groups that rank legislators. A self-described "pro-choice Republican," he opposed every abortion-rights bill that came before him in a committee or procedural vote, then supported those that survived. He voted to keep them from reaching the floor, then voted for them when they reached the floor.

Likewise on gun control, he voted for the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban, but only after voting to kill them both.

"Residents of the 22nd Congressional District can be confident that Huffington represented them at some point,” I wrote at the time, "because he voted both yes and no on most of the major issues facing the 103rd Congress, often on the same day." His record in Congress is a map of manipulation.

Rest assured, Sen. Baucus is no Michael Huffington. Baucus is much more effective, much less obvious. But Huffington is a cartoonish illustration of the fact that many legislators are not just what they seem: they're often also the opposite. By appearing to oppose the climate bill, Baucus may be staging its passage. And he's been almost forthcoming about that, which has some pundits downright stumped:

I don't really think anyone quite knows what to make of this, but Max Baucus is seeming surprisingly bullish on the prospects of climate legislation: "There's no doubt that this Congress is going to pass climate change legislation. I don't know if it's going to be this year. Probably next year." I would have thought that one major reason to be skeptical about a climate bill's prospects is that it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that key senators like Max Baucus would be enthusiastic about. But there you have it.

via Matthew Yglesias » Climate Optimism From Key Democrats .


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