Barbara Boxer is out in front on climate change in the Senate. As a result, she spent much of Tuesday sitting by herself.
From the beginning, it was a bizarre day for Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee and the climate-change debate in general. Making good on their boycott threats from last week, none of the seven committee Republicans were in their seats at the start of Tuesday's hearing.
This attempt to stall the committee from beginning to mark up the Kerry-Boxer climate bill was based on the EPW rule that at least two members of the minority have to be present before opening a markup. But that's just a nicety, and Boxer isn't known for being all that nice. "Sen. Boxer has been as patient as I've ever seen her. I've been with her since 1982," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Boxer doesn't need to be patient, necessarily. She doesn't really need any Republicans to simply pass the bill out of the committee, which has 12 Democratic senators to the 7 from the GOP.
Democrats weren't surprised that one side of the committee dais was empty. They already had their one-liners ready to go:
Republicans weren't entirely absent from the hearing. Retiring Ohio Sen. George Voinovich appeared to deliver a prepared statement on behalf of his missing colleagues that well exceeded the typical five-minute limit on speeches. Then he, too, vanished.
What Voinovich and the Republicans claim they want is a full analysis of the bill by the Environmental Protection Agency, which would take another five weeks. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Reid have agreed to wait for the EPA report before beginning the process of final passage on the Senate floor, but that probably wouldn't mean any delays -- the bill has five more committees to get through before Reid can reconcile its various amended versions. The Republicans want the report now.
"Madam Chairman, asking for an EPA analysis is not a stalling tactic. This is not a ruse to prevent the committee from marking up a climate bill," Voinovich said. "Rather, this is a genuine attempt to make sure that members of this committee, both the majority and the minority, have the best information available as we debate and amend a bill that will have consequences for every person in our country."
The committee just heard from 54 witnesses on nine panels last week, Boxer countered, and has an atypically large amount of data available for review. Voinovich left anyway.
After they'd taken their best shots at the empty chairs, committee Democrats left, too, leaving Boxer to chair a committee of one.
As promised, Boxer brought an EPA official to answer questions from the missing Republicans later in the day, but none materialized. The GOP still wants the report, Voinovich wrote in a statement later Tuesday. "Having a briefing does nothing to change that."
While Boxer sent the EPA deputy on his way Tuesday evening, Inhofe hastily announced a press conference that he abandoned just as quickly. An Inhofe staffer announced to the assembled reporters that Republicans had heard Boxer planned to move her committee into markup at any moment, and Inhofe wanted to be ready to rush into the hearing room and object, the staffer said.
Tragically, that scene never came to pass. Instead, Boxer adjourned the committee to hold a press conference of her own.
It sounded like another Yes Men stunt, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed a theoretical Senate climate change bill on Tuesday evening. Not the Kerry-Boxer bill, though.
Boxer pounced on the news anyway, calling the Chamber's support of a prospective weaker bill a "game changer" at her press conference Tuesday night.
"The Chamber stands ready to work with Congress to resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner that recognizes regional differences, the state of the technology, and the compelling need for a solution that minimizes overall economic impact," head Chamber lobbyist R. Bruce Josten wrote in a letter to Boxer and Ranking committee Republican James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
The letter praised the spirit of compromise displayed by Kerry and Graham in supporting further funding for nuclear power, so-called "clean coal" and domestic drilling, as well as renewable energy sources. Josten reserved the rest of the Chamber's compliments for Republicans, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who quickly emerged last week as a primary threat to the bill in Boxer's committee. The chair herself, not so much.
Even if it's not the "fundamental shift" Boxer called it Tuesday night, Josten's professed desire for some kind of reform marks a reversal for the Chamber, which claims to be the nation's largest business lobby. The group's reputation has been damaged repeatedly in the past month as a series of companies sought to distance themselves from the Chamber's opposition to the climate bill or just left the umbrella group outright.
Last week, the Chamber also began openly working against health care reform.
The Republicans missing from Boxer's hearing earned the public support of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) Tuesday afternoon. Graham has been the Olympia Snowe of climate change since partnering with Kerry to write a New York Times op-ed stressing the need for reform, but he doesn't seem to feel the same pressure he felt a month ago to have a bill to show the international community in Copenhagen in December.
Neither does Kerry, for that matter. "I welcome the opportunity to go at this in a deliberate and thoughtful way," he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously it's pushed back, but that's okay."
The United States can still be a productive participant in the Copenhagen discussions, Kerry said, as long as they have a "framework" take to the world stage. Kerry said European Union President Fredrik Reinfeldt, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agreed with that assessment Tuesday morning. The White House will provide its own ideas for a basic framework on Wednesday, Kerry said, when he and Graham will meet with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
But since climate change won't be done this year, there has been talk of pushing it back beyond the 2010 elections, for the safety of Democrats up for reelection in red or fossil fuel-heavy areas. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon that while he does not support it, he has heard the prospect of a years-long delay floated in "street talk among staff" working on the issue.
At that prospect, Kerry balked. "There's no way that we can afford to do that. There's just no way," he said. "I don't know what an election has to do with the temperature of the Earth being kept at 2 degrees Centigrade. It has nothing to do with it. And the notion that this should be delayed for some artificial schedule is just beyond consideration here. We have an obligation to make this happen, and unless we set some targets, we're going to fall short with disastrous consequences."
Offered a worst-case scenario, Kerry did acknowledge the political realities. "If you get into September of next year or something, that's a different story," he said. "But I don't think we're going to get there."