07/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Climate Change Bill Fight Just Beginning

The climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday was only the first step towards achieving major environmental policy reform. As historic as the moment might have seemed, the bill still faces huge obstacles before becoming law.

The measure, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (R-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), passed with a close 219-to-212 margin and came only after massive arm-twisting by the White House and Democratic leadership. And even then, 44 Democrats voted against the measure. Only eight Republicans crossed the aisle to vote for it.

Such a margin could be deadly in the Senate, where the bill is headed next and where it is expected that the GOP will filibuster -- requiring 60 votes for the bill to pass. With Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) unlikely to participate and moderate Democrats potentially on the fence, the party will have to turn to moderate Republicans to add a few votes. For this to happen, observers say they have two options: Either weaken the bill's restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions or ramp up internal lobbying efforts on fence-straddling senators.

Either plan could backfire. Mike Lux, a highly respected strategist within the progressive community and former adviser to Bill Clinton, warned against tinkering with the environmental regulations that the House established. "If you give away too much to senators, you end up having a bill that not only doesn't help very much but ends up hurting you," Lux told the Huffington Post. "So I think it's a pretty careful balancing act that they're going to have to think through and work through."

"If it was left to my devices," continued Lux, "I'd say screw [tinkering with the] legislation -- let's just do everything we can to continue building the political pressure on folks." He added that Democrats should be "extremely focused on not moving backward in terms of environmental regulations."

If that's the strategy Democrats decide to pursue, the targets are obvious.

"It's got to be a mix of both [parties]," said Lux. "[Maine Senators] Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are actually going to be easier to get than some of the Democrats," including Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), whose support will be elusive due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Then there's the basic philosophical hostility that some "centrist" Democrats feel toward government involvement in environmental policy, which could compel them to oppose the measure.

Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson is "as conservative as Republicans like Snowe and Collins -- maybe more," said Lux.

The seating of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) will help. But what will it take to win Republican support?

"This will be very tough," John Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican operative, said to the Huffington Post. "There are very few Republicans that might vote for this," he continued, naming Senators Snowe, Collins and George Voinovich of Ohio among the possibilities.

The price tag and possibility of a tax increase to pay for the provisions may be a deal breaker for conservatives, Pitney added. "They need to be convinced that the cost is manageable... The tax issue resonates more than the environment issue."

So far, Republicans have shown little enthusiasm for the bill. House Minority Leader John Boehner decried the legislation as "a pile of shit." Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) branded climate change a "hoax" and earned a round of applause from his colleagues.

Noting these objections, Pitney argued that a passable bill might require environmental regulations to be watered down even further. "The House bill in its current form would be a long shot," he said.

GOP leaders are nervous about the passage of this bill, and as the Huffington Post reported, the conservative base might be willing to target members of the party who support the measure.

But changing the legislation too drastically could backfire. Already, some environmentalists say that the legislation's regulations on greenhouse gases are too weak. The Environmental News Network has criticized its "plentiful polluter permits, weak renewable electricity goals, and low carbon emission reduction targets." Greenpeace deputy campaigns director Carroll Muffett said that "this bill is worse than nothing."

That said, there is some room for Democrats to maneuver. While environmental advocates share some of Muffett's concerns, many consider the legislation a vital step toward achieving a clean energy economy.

"Politically, we cannot afford to lose," said Ivan Frishberg, political director for Environment America. "A loss for this really sets us back. The momentum from victory on a weak bill at least gives us momentum to keep working to do more of this. But a loss on something like this really sets us back for years and years and years to come."

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