A Climate of Opportunity for Democrats

04/18/2008 02:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, after years of resisting limits on US greenhouse gas emissions, President Bush showed interest for the first time in stopping those emissions sometime in the next two decades. Many Republicans praised the President's "measured" approach and echoed his call for slow-going and a reliance on technology. Democrats, environmentalists and others immediately (and rightly) castigated him for proposing a climate change policy that won't stop climate change.

The fact that President Bush is hesitant -- or unwilling -- to take major steps on climate change is not news. The news is that the president has acknowledged the writing on the wall, granting that some kind of regulation on carbon emissions is inevitable. The news is also the opportunity that this creates for the Democrats in Congress and the next president.

President Bush is, of course, among the last to come to the table on this issue. Democrats in the Senate have rallied behind a cap-and-trade bill authored by Sens. Lieberman and Warner, and the leadership plans to bring it to the floor for a vote in early June. Governors across the country have begun passing laws and forming interstate pacts to reduce CO2. And all three major presidential candidates have called for limits on emissions.

The key barrier to making progress on the national level in a timely way has always been the bulwark provided opponents of action by the President's consistent unwillingness to call for mandatory limits. It's infected on-the-fence Members and slowed progress in both chambers.

That Bush barrier is now gone, at least in form. So what should be done?

It's a question that falls squarely in the laps of House and Senate Democrats.

After years of fighting the good fight in the face of stubborn opposition, now there is a chance for progress, even if that means bipartisan compromise. "Bipartisan compromise" hasn't exactly been the watchword (or phrase) in the last seven-plus years. But there's another phrase that ought to be the priority for Democrats in this case: points on the board.

Climate legislation presents probably the last best chance for Democrats to score a legislative win and prove their return to majority a success. Many freshman Democrats will need that kind of evidence to point to in November, as they defend their seats in hotly contested swing districts. Using this opening -- however flawed the specifics may have been -- to reach the five or six Senators and key House committee members whose votes matter most could prove essential to securing that win.

This is also a critical opportunity to build momentum for the next president. The opposition to real reform won't just disappear next January -- no matter who sits in the Oval Office, there will still be a persistent, organized effort to water down or strangle climate legislation. Every constructive step forward taken this year will insulate the next President when he or she takes on the climate issue.

This isn't to suggest that Democrats should abandon their legislation and go with the president's flawed plan. Far from it -p Lieberman-Warner presents a smart and effective means to fight climate change. The mandate that Bush has provided is instead to use this opening to recruit support from swing Senators, to drive forward and propose legislation in the House, and to continue pulling the White House closer to doing what needs to be done.

We have an opportunity as a nation to do something about this common challenge. Bush has waived the tiniest of white flags, and Democrats should seize the chance to move forward.