McCain doesn't love climate bill
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Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman have been working overtime to craft a climate bill that can attract significant GOP support. But they aren't exactly scoring points with their mutual best friend in the Senate, John McCain.
"Their start has been horrendous," McCain said Thursday. "Obviously, they're going nowhere."
McCain has emerged as a vocal opponent of the climate bill -- a major reversal for the self-proclaimed maverick who once made defying his party on global warming a signature issue of his career.
Now the Arizona Republican is more likely to repeat GOP talking points on cap and trade than to help usher the bill through the thorny politics of the Senate.
McCain refers to the bill as "cap and tax," calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June "a 1,400-page monstrosity" and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as "a government slush fund."
Former aides are mystified by what they see as a retreat on the issue, given McCain's long history of leadership on climate legislation. McCain and Lieberman authored their first climate bill in 2003 and reintroduced the legislation in 2005 and 2007. "The only reason we are debating climate legislation in the Senate right now is because of the leadership he showed three Congresses ago," said Tim Profeta, a former staffer for the Connecticut independent on climate issues who is now a professor at Duke University.
"I wouldn't be here on this issue without him," said Graham, a South Carolina Republican who spent much of last fall campaigning for McCain. "He's the guy that introduced me to the climate problem."
McCain first began moving away from his support for cap and trade during his 2008 presidential campaign, when he insisted that reporters not describe the program as a "mandatory" cap on greenhouse gas emissions. He also infuriated the environmental community by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate and standing by as she questioned global warming science.
Lobbyists who've met with McCain say he feels that the White House has failed to pour enough political capital into the issue for him to feel comfortable breaking with his party.
"This really hasn't been done in a bipartisan fashion," said McCain spokesman Brooke Buchanan.
Current and former aides suggest that staff changes since the campaign could also have something to do with the change in tone. Several of McCain's longtime staffers, including top aide Mark Salter, left the office after the campaign. And Floyd DesChamps, a Commerce Committee aide who worked closely on the McCain-Lieberman climate bill, left Capitol Hill after McCain gave up his longtime seat on the committee last January.
The staff that remains, say former aides, lacks the institutional history on the issue and the ability to steer McCain toward productive solutions.
McCain aides dismissed the idea that those changes have had an effect on his position, saying that the senator -- not the staff -- drives policy positions.
Arizona politics could be another factor. Republicans hope to use the cap-and-trade bill to attack Democrats on economic issues by saying it will raise electricity costs for businesses and spike electric bills. Those attacks could resonate in Arizona, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
"His view is probably [that], in the middle of a recession, when we have 10 percent unemployment, [it] is not the time to be putting a huge new energy tax on our economy," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who opposes an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill.
McCain says he is discussing the climate issue with Lieberman but does not see Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who introduced a climate bill earlier this fall, or the Obama administration as willing to negotiate with him.
"What they've done so far is not only a nonstarter, but it's a contradiction to everything I've tried to do on cap and trade," he said. "I see no support for what they are trying to do."
McCain has laid out a series of proposals that could help win his vote -- but most likely at the cost of Democratic votes.
An ardent believer in free trade, McCain would like to strip a provision out of the legislation that would levy a border tax on imports from China, India and other developing countries if they do not sign on to an international climate treaty.
"That's blatant protectionism; that's insulting to everything I believe in," he said.
But dropping the border tax would lose votes from Rust Belt Democrats, who fear the legislation will hurt the manufacturing industry.
And he'd like to open Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste -- a highly controversial issue that would inflame the climate debate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has spent decades lobbying against the project. Earlier this year, the Obama administration stripped funding for the facility in its 2010 budget.
"They're shutting down Yucca Mountain because of the power and influence of Sen. Reid," McCain said. "They can do that, but that doesn't mean that somehow they get me to agree to it."
First Published November 20, 2009 2:53 am