How Washington politics killed the climate bill: 6 key factors

The New Yorker's account of how infighting, meddling and obstructionism put the kibosh a new energy policy

Climate bill captains: Sens. Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and John Kerry.
(Image credit: Getty)

In April 2010, the U.S. was on the cusp of achieving a landmark and long-sought energy law that would tackle climate change, revive nuclear energy, and expand offshore drilling, says Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker. A "tripartisan" group of senators — John Kerry (D), Lindsey Graham (R), and Joe Lieberman (I) — worked for months to put together a bill that satisfied a broad range of constiuencies. But the politics went dramatically sour just as they were about to unveil the bill, and ultimately it never even came up for a vote in the Senate. Here are six key chapters in the tale of its "tragic" demise:

The climate bill became an orphan in the health reform fight

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was a vocal supporter of climate change legislation, even saying, in a debate with rival John McCain: "Energy we have to deal with today. Health care is priority No. 2." Once in the White House, however, Team Obama decided to throw both issues "against the wall, and see which one looks more promising," a senior White House official tells Lizza. By December 2009, "health care had become the legislation that stuck to the wall," Lizza says, and energy had become, according to a senior official, "Obama's 'stepchild.'"

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Republicans wouldn't embrace the bill, even after industry did

The three senators tried for months to get a handful of Republicans on board, but when that proved too hard they turned to the Republicans' "industry backers" — and soon cobbled together a historic coalition that included the Chamber of Commerce, major oil industry players, the electric energy lobby, and gas baron T. Boone Pickens. But that still didn't bring in any GOP senators: "It turned out that working with Washington interest groups was far simpler than dealing with Republican senators navigating a populist conservative uprising," Lizza says.

The White House gave away all the goodies for free

A month before the senators were going to roll out their big bill, Obama announced his plan to open new areas of coastal waters to offshore drilling. Graham was reportedly "apoplectic," since expanding offshore drilling was one of his key sweeteners to bring reluctant Republicans on board. And that was "the third time that the White House had blundered," Lizza says, after its earlier give-aways of key bargaining chips boosting nuclear energy and putting off EPA regulation of carbon emissions. Since "Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach," Graham "had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues."

The key Republican was nervous about Fox News' take

There was one group the senators did not want to negotiate with: Fox News. As they were figuring out how to structure a carbon fee on oil companies and refiners — they were on board with the plan — "Graham warned Lieberman and Kerry that they needed to get as far as they could in negotiating the bill 'before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process,'" a source tells Lizza. Graham "would say, 'The second they focus on us, it's gonna be all cap-and-tax all the time, and it's gonna become just a disaster for me on the airwaves.'" A White House leak to Fox, that Graham wanted a "gas tax," nearly drove him out of the triumvirate on April 15.

Harry Reid messed up the deal

Graham finally bailed on his two "amigos" in late April, days before he would have been publicly committed to the bill, after Harry Reid first said he wanted to pass a nonexistent immigration bill before climate change — a "cynical ploy" to bolster support for his perilous reelection bid, Lizza says — and then, fatally, refused to back Graham on the proposed bill's fee for oil refiners. The next day, Lieberman "invoked a Talmudic exception" to break Shabbat and call Graham to talk him out of splitting, and Kerry flew down to Washington from Massachusetts, but he was done. The final message from Graham's top environment aide to Lieberman's, after seven months of close collaboration, was "Sorry buddy." It was "soul-crushing," says Lieberman's aide, Danielle Rosengarten.

The final nail: The BP oil spill

Just as the remaining two senators were unveiling their bill, "sixty thousand barrels of oil a day were flowing into the Gulf of Mexico." Environmentalists saw this as a possible boost to climate legislation, but "Kerry and Lieberman were left sponsoring a bill with a sweeping expansion of offshore drilling at a moment when the newspapers were filled with photographs of birds soaking in oil." Even as summer brought a "period of record-high temperatures," the White House didn't step up to fight for the bill and no Republican would back it. And that was the end.

Read the full article at The New Yorker.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us