On climate bill, Democrats reach out to industry heavyweights


WASHINGTON — As he toured union halls and factory floors in his 2006 Senate campaign, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown repeatedly railed against the “prescription bill the drug companies
wrote,” the “energy bill the oil companies wrote” and all the other
policy decisions dominated by special interests.

Now half way through his first Senate term, Brown seems to see at least one major Washington policy push differently.

Brown is one of a handful of senators trying to line
up support for a climate bill that would put new limits on greenhouse
gas emissions and spur production of renewable energy.

And surprising as it may seem, the heart of those
senators’ strategy is to woo special interests — major electric
utilities, steel and cement producers, farmers and coal and oil

“I know, it doesn’t sound like me,” Brown conceded
on a recent afternoon. But in his own defense, he added, “I really do
think this is different. I think people understand that if industry
doesn’t — if this doesn’t work for them, if this doesn’t keep them in
business … it hurts the country.”

Whatever else, it’s the education of a junior senator.

Brown — along with Senate climate negotiators and the Obama administration — has embraced one of Washington’s
enduring realities: It’s easier to get agreement on a major policy
issue if powerful business groups are inside the tent helping to shape
the decisions, instead of outside the tent working to blow it down.

In the case of efforts to craft a climate bill, business support is deemed so crucial that, before meeting with President Barack Obama and a handful of swing-vote senators at the White House last week, the bill’s architects first sat down with a group of industry lobbyists who are members of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce energy committee.

In blunt terms, the senators asked the lobbyists what the bill needed to say to receive industry backing.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “acknowledged that this needs broad industry support, or it ain’t gonna happen,” said Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president of government affairs, who helped organize the meeting.

Kerry said as much in an interview.

“This is a bill with major impact on our economy,
and we want the important players at the table,” he said. “There is no
question in my mind that if a broad cross-section of American business
is saying we need this to create jobs and we need this to be
competitive and we want this certainty, I can’t imagine senators
ignoring the job-creators on that.”

The approach has breathed a glimmer of life into a Senate effort many had left for dead, stoking hopes that a half-dozen Republicans could sign onto the bill.

But the strategy carries dangers, too. The efforts
by Obama and congressional Democrats to curry industry support to
overhaul health care and financial regulation have not pushed either
bill across the finish line yet. In both cases, deals between business
groups and lawmakers triggered popular backlash.

Some analysts also suggest that the dynamics of Washington
have shifted — that major industry support does not affect votes in the
way it once did, particularly for Republicans who feel intense pressure
from “tea party” and other activists to oppose Obama and congressional
Democrats across the board.

The activist pressures are certainly real, but so is
the ability of major business groups to mobilize opposition to policy

That’s why the climate bill’s supporters are aggressively courting big business. Last week alone, White House
officials discussed energy with leaders in the utility, nuclear, and
oil and gas sectors. Democrats have also met with environmentalists and
renewable-energy executives.

One issue is at the heart of all the meetings: money.

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly
will lead to higher prices for fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. Any
business that produces or consumes a lot of energy wants assurances
that its bottom line won’t suffer as a result of new legislation.

To address those concerns, Kerry, Brown and the others have embraced yet another tried-and-true Washington
approach — a strategy as old as the country itself: They are planning
to cushion the impact with subsidies, delays and exemptions.

The still-forming Senate plan would cap
power plant emissions right away but issue a large portion of emissions
permits for free, instead of forcing utilities to pay for them.

It would offer sweeteners to expand offshore oil drilling, nuclear power plant construction and “clean coal” technology.

Negotiations continue on how to deal with the cost
of reducing emissions from cars and trucks that burn petroleum; oil
interests are pushing for a straight tax they can pass directly to

The bill would slowly phase in emissions limits for
factories — the steel, cement, chemical and other companies that Brown
wants to ensure won’t be driven offshore by high energy prices — while
buffering them from price spikes. The legislation also would create new
incentives for renewable-energy manufacturing.

Brown calls those protections critical for the
economy and for efforts to combat climate change: If factories move to
countries that have more relaxed environmental rules, such as China, global emissions could increase, he argues.


(c) 2010, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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