Democrats look to industry for help in climate bill


As he toured union halls and factory floors in his 2006 Senate campaign, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown repeatedly railed against the “prescription bill the drug companies wrote,” the “energy bill the oil companies wrote” and all the other policy decisions dominated by special interests.

Now halfway through his first Senate term, Brown seems to see at least one major Washington policy push differently.

Brown is one of a handful of senators trying to line up support for a climate bill that would put new limits on greenhouse gas emissions and spur production of renewable energy.

And surprising as it may seem, the heart of those senators’ strategy is to woo special interests -- major electric utilities, steel and cement producers, farmers and coal and oil companies.

“I know, it doesn’t sound like me,” Brown conceded on a recent afternoon. But in his own defense, he added, “I really do think this is different. I think people understand that if industry doesn’t -- if this doesn’t work for them, if this doesn’t keep them in business . . . it hurts the country.”

Whatever else, it’s the education of a junior senator.

Brown, along with Senate climate negotiators and the Obama administration, has embraced one of Washington’s enduring realities: It’s easier to get agreement on a major policy issue if powerful business groups are inside the tent helping to shape the decisions, instead of outside the tent working to blow it down.

In the case of efforts to craft a climate bill, business support is deemed so crucial that, before meeting with President Obama and some swing-vote senators at the White House last week, the bill’s architects sat down with a group of industry lobbyists who are members of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce energy committee.

In blunt terms, the senators asked the lobbyists what the bill needed to say to receive industry backing.

Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) “acknowledged that this needs broad industry support, or it ain’t gonna happen,” said Bruce Josten, the chamber’s executive vice president of government affairs, who helped organize the meeting.

Kerry said as much in an interview.

“This is a bill with major impact on our economy, and we want the important players at the table,” he said. “There is no question in my mind that if a broad cross-section of American business is saying we need this to create jobs and we need this to be competitive and we want this certainty, I can’t imagine senators ignoring the job creators on that.”

Case in point: Brown says he will only support a climate bill that boosts manufacturing.

The approach has breathed a glimmer of life into a Senate effort many had left for dead, stoking hopes that half a dozen Republicans could sign onto the bill.

But the strategy carries dangers too. The efforts by Obama and congressional Democrats to curry industry support to overhaul healthcare and financial regulation have not pushed either bill across the finish line. In both cases, deals between business groups and lawmakers triggered popular backlash.

Some analysts also suggest that the dynamics of Washington have shifted -- that major industry support does not affect votes in the way it once did, particularly for Republicans who feel intense pressure from “tea party” and other activists to oppose Obama and congressional Democrats across the board.

The activist pressures are certainly real, but so is the ability of major business groups to mobilize opposition to policy initiatives.

That’s why the climate bill’s supporters are aggressively courting big business.

Last week alone, White House officials discussed energy with leaders in the utility, nuclear and oil and gas sectors. Democrats have also met with environmentalists and renewable-energy executives.

One issue is at the heart of all the meetings: money.

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly will lead to higher prices for fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Any business that produces or consumes a lot of energy wants assurances that its bottom line won’t suffer as a result of new legislation.

To address those concerns, Kerry, Brown and the others have embraced yet another tried-and-true Washington approach -- a strategy as old as the country itself: They are planning to cushion the impact with subsidies, delays and exemptions.

The still-forming Senate plan would cap power plant emissions right away but issue a large portion of emissions permits free, instead of forcing utilities to pay for them.

It would offer sweeteners to expand offshore oil drilling, nuclear power plant construction and “clean coal” technology.

Negotiations continue on how to deal with the cost of reducing emissions from cars and trucks that burn petroleum; oil interests are pushing for a straight tax they could pass directly to consumers.

The bill would slowly phase in emissions limits for factories -- the steel, cement, chemical and other companies that Brown wants to ensure won’t be driven offshore by high energy prices -- while buffering them from price increases. The legislation also would create incentives for renewable-energy manufacturing.

Brown calls those protections crucial for the economy and for efforts to combat climate change: If factories move to countries that have more relaxed environmental rules, such as China, global emissions could increase, he argues.