In case you thought passing a climate bill was easy: “Chaos, arm-twisting gave Pelosi win”

kermit muppets-it-aint-easy-being-greenJudging by emails and comments, many progressives and enviros seem to be under the misimpression that a much tougher climate bill was politically possible.  I myself was under that misimpression for a while.

Now, in fairness to myself (and others), one serious scenario does exist for a tougher climate bill being politically possible — but that involves a very hands-on Obama, which so far hasn’t been his style for passing legislation (see “Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010“).  Also, his advisors are almost certainly telling him to soft-pedal climate science — a serious mistake, since it essentially gives the deniers free reign to shape half of the debate.  I will blog on that shortly.

Outside the DC beltway, much of what goes on in this town is seen as some form of crass, enigmatic sausage making.  Well, as someone who has lived here for over 15 years, that’s precisely what it is.  And it always bears repeating that given modern conservative ideology, which is 100% anti-conservation, “the country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and [large] Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun.

Even then, you must contend with the fact that a key part of this new Democratic majority is built upon votes from districts that are relatively moderate if not conservative, people who voted Democratic not so much because they endorse the progressive platform, but because they finally saw the ever-shrinking Republican Party for what it is — a rigidly-ideological movement hat has no solutions to offer for the many problems facing the country, problems that in fact stem from the few times the public mistakenly handed them the keys to the Hummer.

I would also add that in my one year as an American Physical Society Congressional science fellow advising a conservative Democrat from Florida in 1987-1988 — a pre-Gingrich time that was in theory much more conducive to bipartisanship — I never once saw a single member cast a vote purely for the national interest, except when that vote had no bearing whatsoever on their district.  And even then, every vote was still primarily a political calculation, and if their support wasn’t needed for passage, members almost automatically asked for a pass on any vote that could conceivably get them in any trouble in their district.

So how did we actually get a majority to vote for the first major environmental bill in two decades, a bill that is easily demagogued against politically — see this misleading but brutal GOP ad already whipped up against one Dem —  but whose major environmental benefit is decades in the future?

The Politico explains in “Chaos, arm-twisting gave Pelosi win,” excerpted below:

After lawmakers had devoured the last of the Kalua Pig at last Thursday night’s White House Luau, Nancy Pelosi summoned her team back to the Capitol “” to ensure the climate change bill wasn’t the next thing roasted on the spit.

Pelosi and her top lieutenants would spend the next four hours whipping, cajoling, begging and browbeating undecided Democrats “” and triple-checking their whip lists to decide who was a solid “yes” and who was prevaricating on the cap-and-trade legislation.

Yet no matter how many calls they made “” or how many times they checked and rechecked their list “” Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) kept coming up between 12 and 20 votes short of the 216 votes needed to win.

“We didn’t have the votes “” and we had to have this vote,” said a leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This was the big one for us. [Pelosi] staked her prestige on this one. … This was her flagship issue, and this was a flagship vote for us.”

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed by only 219-212, after an epic day replete with Republican ambushes, petty betrayals, hastily rearranged flights and disappearing acts.

Yet for all the apparent chaos, the action was commanded by a House speaker maneuvering with the urgency of someone who knew her reputation was on the line.

Despite Republican promises to punish battleground state Democrats for supporting a “cap and tax” plan, Pelosi and her fractious caucus passed their most serious test to date.

And whatever the fallout, aides say that both Pelosi and President Barack Obama now know that their majority can hold together “” barely “” when placed under withering pressure “” which may bode well for the equally arduous trials on health care reform.

At the end of it all, Pelosi, who floated in and out of the House cloakroom all day, impossible to miss in an arctic-white linen pantsuit, gambled big and pulled off one of the most important legislative victories of her career, a win she views as a personal vindication, according to those close to the San Francisco Democrat.

“There’s no question about it,” Clyburn said after the vote. “She went back to her whipping days of old. She is an incredibly good whip. I’m trying to learn from her every day.”

Despite the most coordinated push yet between Democrats on the Hill and the Obama White House, the outcome was not certain until the very end, according to two dozen aides and members of Congress interviewed by POLITICO.

“It was really never a solid [216],” one person said afterward.

Party leaders agreed to bring the bill to the floor during a meeting Monday night, even though some of the members present had reservations about forcing vulnerable Democrats to cast votes on a package that may not go anywhere in the Senate.

In the days leading up the vote, the number of Democratic “yes” votes was locked at 200, according to people familiar with the tally. Every time they’d pick up one vote, another would slip. Democratic leaders needed a cushion to help protect the most vulnerable among them, and they didn’t have it.

As the frustration grew, an aide joked in one meeting that White House staff should give fence-sitters the same colored leis so that the president and his Cabinet secretaries would know who to buttonhole. The desperation was such that others in the room paused for a split second to consider the joke before abandoning it as a logistical impossibility.

During the luau, Clyburn set up shop in the Oval Office with Obama to meet with wavering Democrats, like freshmen Reps. Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland and Eric Massa of New York. Members of Clyburn’s whip team patrolled the White House lawn, cornering colleagues and making the case for the bill.

As the week wore on, Pelosi was directing former Vice President Al Gore whom to call, but everyone decided late Wednesday night that the list of undecided members was small enough that he should stay in Nashville, Tenn., to make calls.

On the day of the vote, the bleary-eyed tag team of Pelosi and Clyburn camped out in the cloakroom, just off the House floor, for nearly three hours.

One of Pelosi’s first targets was Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a key fence-sitter who wanted more money generated from the carbon trading to be directed to the research and development of green technology.

Pelosi talked to him again and again, but he wouldn’t budge. Her message to him was the same as it was to others: It wasn’t worth voting against the bill because of what wasn’t in it.

According to witnesses, Pelosi perched herself on the arm of Holt’s chair and went nose to nose with him for a half-hour warning him that his no vote could scuttle the entire climate change effort “” and that liberals would have another chance to make their case once the bill came back from the Senate.

Around 2 o’clock, he became a “yes.”

Next up was Austin, Texas, liberal Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who had seemed to be leaning toward the bill during a Thursday night visit with Obama in the Oval Office “” but then infuriated the White House midday Friday by declaring the measure too weak on polluters to win his vote.

An exasperated White House staffer told POLITICO it was “stunning that he would ignore the wishes not just of his president but of his constituents and the country.”

Then Pelosi began working Doggett as the two stood in the back of the chamber near the railing, making the same perfect-is-enemy-of-the-good argument she had used against Holt. Doggett ended up voting “yes.”During the vote, Washington Rep. Jay Inslee, one of the taller members of the House, guarded the doors on the floor leading out to the Speaker’s Lobby, warning members not to leave the floor in case anyone needed to switch his or her vote. But that didn’t stop some Democrats, like Colorado Rep. John Salazar, from voting no early and sneaking out to avoid getting pressured by party leaders.

Leadership aides say Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez promised Pelosi he’d vote yes, but voted no and sprinted from the chamber. California Rep. Xavier Becerra tried unsuccessfully to flag him on his cell phone “” and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) bounded into the ornate Speaker’s Lobby off the floor shouting, “Rodriguez! Rodriguez!” as puzzled reporters looked on.

Pelosi forced members to postpone their trips abroad to stay in town for the vote, aides familiar with the situation said. At one point, she even promised to escort one member out to the airport in her motorcade to catch an early flight “” as House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) stalled the proceedings with an hourlong reading from the 300-page manager’s amendment.

California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a master of floor procedure who left the House on Friday to take a top job at the State Department, may have made the biggest personal sacrifice by postponing a dinner the night before her wedding to preside over the debate “” her last as a member of Congress.

When another Californian, Rep. Joe Baca, declared himself undeclared, Pelosi and her whip team surrounded him “” and burst out into applause when he cast one of the decisive “yes” votes, according to an eyewitness.

Members who wanted to be spared of the Pelosi treatment “” slinked in and out of the chamber hoping the speaker wouldn’t notice them.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) “” another progressive who didn’t think the bill was strong enough “” was an especially elusive target, according to leadership aides. Pelosi’s attempts to contact Filner early Friday weren’t successful, staffers say, but she began lobbying him furiously when he showed up for a series of procedural votes leading up to the fateful climate change measure.

After Baca and others had cast their “yeas,” the speaker walked up to Filner and calmly said, “It’s now your time to be on the record, Mr. Filner,” according to a witness.

He voted yes.

That’s how it’s done.

18 Responses to In case you thought passing a climate bill was easy: “Chaos, arm-twisting gave Pelosi win”

  1. Greg Robie says:

    A pair of haiku as a comment:

    As Kermit has said,
    “It ain’t easy being green,”
    and sapiens ain’t.

    And why is this so?
    “Its the economy…” and
    our frog of a brain!

    . . . and, seriously, if the mea copa re: a stronger bill is as it appears, could the same be true re: the trust that W-M and C&T will be strengthened/improved in a scientifically meaningful way since this is “how it’s done?”

    My arguments and proposals are part of a strategy that factors in the role the reptilian brain plays in the subconscious. My bias is that we cannot not be afraid. We are much more unconsciously cognizant of our economic fears than we are of our environmental ones. Helping people become intelligently afraid when they are in conscious denial of their fears is a challenge. But constraining the tools that are to be chosen among to those that feel positive is, systemically, counterproductive, Protecting the fears of the reptilian brain by pandering to economic fears to “positively” spin things only reinforces those fears. That reinforcing makes changing our unconscious fears from economic ones to environmental ones more difficult and continues to feed into a failed—if trusted—strategy.

  2. paulm says:

    Tag along canucks…

    Canada to match U.S. climate change rules

    Canada will adopt climate-change regulations comparable to those of the United States – including new rules for oil sands producers and refiners – to avoid punitive “green” tariffs, Environment Minister Jim Prentice says.

  3. Dean says:

    “I never once saw a single member cast a vote purely for the national interest, except when that vote had no bearing whatsoever on their district.”

    This is the inevitable result of a legislature based solely on individual districts.

    Sausage-making – for sure, but not spicy polish.

    I think that the state of the science of climate change is far more certain than any understanding of what the exact mpact of this bill will actually be. Critics who, like me, wanted a stronger bill, or a carbon tax, often claim that failure of this bill would leave space for a much better one next year. But how do we know that’s not just wishful thinking? Since the denialists would undoubtedly be crowing if it had fallen. Would we really get a better chance? We don’t know. Will the impact be more like the proponents say, or as the more rational critics claim? I don’t think we really know. All bills leave plenty of room for bureaucratic implementation rules.

    But this was the easy step compared to the Senate. Likelihood is that the only chance to get this past the Senate without major weakening is a withering heat wave this summer. Yes – we know that individual events cannot be conclusively tied to long-term trends. But we also know that sausage-making and rational decision-making are not the same thing.

  4. Jeff Huggins says:

    The problem you raise explains why a dramatic improvement in media coverage is so essential.

    It’s also one of the reasons why scientists should get much more outspoken.

    It’s also the reason why the last passage in Tom Friedman’s piece today is accurate.



  5. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “… many progressives and enviros seem to be under the misimpression that a much tougher climate bill was politically possible.”

    It’s a sobering thought that the minimum steps needed to achieve the reductions in GHG emissions that science tells us are urgently needed if we are to have any chance of avoiding the most horrific and catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic global warming are “not politically possible”.

    I won’t argue that anything better than this bill was “politically possible.” I trust that you know what you are talking about on that score.

    But it is also inarguable that what is “politically possible” falls far short — tragically short — of what science tells us is needed.

    What we have here is a great political success in passing a bill that is a substantive failure.

    And hopeful handwaving that the Senate will make it stronger, or that in years to come subsequent Congresses will strengthen it, is not convincing.

    The fact that this bill is, probably, the strongest one that was “politically possible” strengthens my belief that humanity will fail to take the necessary action to avert our own extinction, and the mass extinction of much life on Earth with us. It’s just not “politically possible” to do so.

  6. UK union members call for tougher climate bill: “Give the bill some balls”

    Kate Sheppard reminds us how the Brits do it

  7. Bill R says:

    JOE>>>> we need your help.

    Joe, I know that the senate is going to be a tough slog… can you please make it a project of yours to explain to us climate activists who the tough votes are in the senate and how we can place pressure there?

    Who are the fence sitting democrats?

    Who are the Republicans like McCain who have at least put themsleves out there as recognizing that climate is a big issue, so that we can do what we can to pressure them.

    You know the politics here… make a list for us! :)

  8. Will Greene says:

    Man, way to go Pelosi. She’s earned my respect.

  9. Lewis says:

    The odd thing to me is one of my Senators is talking of how he got some pork for Ohio into the bill while my Representative in congress voted against it (to front page stories extolling his resolve in the face of arm twisting from the Speaker and President.) It is a bit exasperating.

  10. Will Greene says:

    I echo Bill R’s comment. Who will be the fence sitters in the senate?

    One more question, I’m new to this. If a cap and trade similar to ACES passes the Senate are we done, or does it have to go back to the House for another vote? I need to know if it’s worth it to keep working on my congressman. (I volunteer for Greenpeace)

  11. Modesty says:

    Chiming in with several commenters above: Senate road map ASAP.


  12. Modesty says:

    And which Senators will push for the Section 702 economy-wide goal to be consistent with what WRI says the bill can do?

  13. “triple-checking their whip lists to decide who was a solid “yes” and who was prevaricating on the cap-and-trade legislation.”

    They mean “vacillating.”

    “To prevaricate” means “to deviate from the truth” or more bluntly “to lie.”

    As we all know, there is never any need to check whether politicians are prevaricating.

  14. Richard Brenne says:

    For about four score and seven years there were comparable battles in Congress to preserve slavery as an institution and as the foundation of the U.S. economy, especially in the South.

    Now the foundation of our economy comes from burning fossil fuels.

    Four score and seven years hence, and for all eternity, our descendents will wonder why we ruined our planet for them, for everyone between our times, and for everyone to follow.

    The pro-fossil fuel forces are like the pro-slavery forces. They will be seen as such to virtually everyone of all generations through all time. We need as many as possible to see them that way now.

  15. MarkB says:

    Many Democrats need to grow a backbone. The strong majority of Americans support greenhouse gas reductions and most polls show support for cap and trade. These Democrats need not be scared by some loud zealots who are attempting to intimidate them into thinking their political career is on the line. Hopefully, Democratic Senators, who don’t have to worry about the constraints of representing very narrow interests, will not feel threatened in this manner.

  16. SecularAnimist says:

    MarkB wrote: “These Democrats need not be scared by some loud zealots who are attempting to intimidate them into thinking their political career is on the line.”

    They are not scared by some loud zealots. They are scared by some very, very, very wealthy and powerful corporations. And unfortunately some of them don’t need to be “scared” much, because they are bought-and-paid-for tools of the fossil fuel corporations to begin with (see “coal-state Dem”).

  17. Mike D says:

    “As we all know, there is never any need to check whether politicians are prevaricating.”


    Good one.

  18. I wonder what are the other Dems who voted no – thinking? Even Kucinich is on that list.. it’s not easy to please everyone, at least we can get something going to start with..