Democrats recently elected to the U.S. Senate have pressed their colleagues to ambitiously address climate and energy reform, and are frustrated by the lack of action. In a series of interviews with the Wonk Room at Netroots Nation, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) described the challenges of confronting climate pollution in the sclerotic legislative body, brought to a practical standstill by minority obstruction. They each discussed how the “new class” of 22 Democratic senators elected in the 2006 and 2008 waves (with independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont) have pressed for greater “political clarity” on climate by “rattling all the cages” in the Senate, alongside senior leaders such as Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).
Questioned by the Wonk Room why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) shied away from introducing a comprehensive climate bill for full Senate consideration as energy crises pile up during the hottest summer ever recorded, the senators noted the ability of Republicans to thwart the will of the majority through the abuse of parliamentary procedures. They recognized Reid’s decision to try for quick action with a limited package in what little time is left during this Congress. However, they relished the chance to debate the promise of a green economy before the November elections, seeing the issue as a political winner:
CARDIN: I think we need political clarity. I wasn’t so concerned about having a vote before August. But we needed the clarity of the bill.
FRANKEN: If you want to rev up people, and say Democrats believe in this — one of the gaps they’re talking about is the enthusiasm gap. So maybe, politically, that is the right way to go. I think that Harry tends to want to get half a loaf or a third of a loaf rather than no loaf at all. This bill could be considered a first step. A lot of that is strategic, in terms of positioning yourself for the election. I was sort of of the school that we should go for pricing carbon, and if we lose, we lose. But that’s not what we did.
UDALL: Our two classes — the class of 2006 and the class of 2008 — I think have a real passion for all of the things you talked about and a desire to do something. We’re rattling all the cages in the committees we’re on, doing the things that we can do. But there is kind of an institutional thing going on there that slows everything down. There’s no doubt about that.
MERKLEY: This generational factor is why, if we can create a course that at least puts us on the right track for the next six to eight years, we will have with each subsequent election more and more folks coming in — based on what I hear at the university level, and graduate school level, and based on the difference between our class and the several classes ahead of us — there is just a growing commitment and passion to fighting this fight on climate and energy.
Watch Udall, Merkley, and Franken discuss their efforts to bring new passion to the climate and energy fight:
The Democrats described by Sen. Cardin as the “new class” overwhelmingly support strong green economy legislation, unlike the older generation peppered with climate peacocks. In fact, according to Politico, every one of the 12 Democrats elected in 2008 would vote for cloture on comprehensive climate and energy reform. Of the ten Democrats elected in 2006, only Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) make polluter-friendly arguments against clean energy reform.
“This is going to be a generational battle,” Merkley explained. “We’re going to have keep working and pushing because even our most optimistic bill has fairly weak goals for 2020. We’re going to have to be a lot more aggressive between 2020 and 2050 if we’re going to address carbon dioxide.”
“We can’t give up,” Cardin said during his interview, “because the stakes are too high for our country.”
In contrast to the above senators’ frustration with Republican obstruction, other Democrats want to ensure its continuation. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI, elected in 1990), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA, 1992), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE, 2000), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR, 2002), and one member of the newer classes, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MO, 2006), want to preserve the 60-vote threshold for all action in the Senate.