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In the months that have passed since the ignominious death of the Senate climate bill, there's been speculation abound as to what, exactly, caused its demise. Some argued that oil and coal interests were just too strong, or that public opinion was never strong enough, or that health care reform drained Congress' will. Many have also focused on the role of the White House, and how the Obama administration was too detached from the process, etc. But a more pointed theory has been bouncing around ever since Ryan Lizza's excellent investigative report on the climate bill proceedings was published: That a lone betrayal from the White House administration against the Republican senator working on the climate bill may have been the beginning of its end. Senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry had succeeded in working out a climate bill that each of the major industries and interests to be impacted -- yes, even coal, oil, and the US Chamber of Commerce -- approved of. They just had to get some Republican senators to sign on, and get the White House behind their bill. So they sent the bill to the Congressional Budget Office to get it formally appraised.
Here's the what happened next, according to the New Yorker piece: "In early April, according to two K.G.L. aides, someone at the Congressional Budget Office told Kerry that its economists, when analyzing the bill, would describe the linked fee as a tax." Knowing this would be disastrous politically, the senators met with the oil industry to work out a system that would be different enough to avoid that label. They agreed to ditch the linked fee for a different system.
Two days later, on April 15th, [White House Chief of Staff Rahm] Emanuel and [Climate Czar Carol] Browner hosted a group of prominent environmentalists at the White House for an 11 A.M. meeting. For weeks, the linked fee had been a hot topic among Washington climate-change geeks. Now the two groups that hated the policy the most were in the same room. According to people at the meeting, the White House aides and some of the environmentalists, including Carl Pope, the chairman of the Sierra Club, expressed their contempt for the linked fee: even if it was a fine idea on the merits, it was political poison. The White House aides and the environmentalists either didn't know that the fee had been dropped from the bill or didn't think the change was significant. The meeting lasted about thirty minutes.It turned out that someone from within the Obama administration had leaked the notion that Lindsay Graham supported a gas tax to Fox News. Which may not sound like much, but that's like leaking news that a Republican supports gay marriage to Rush Limbaugh -- it's political anathema.
Just after noon, Rimkunas, Graham's climate-policy adviser, sent Rosengarten an e-mail. The subject was "Go to Fox website and look at gas tax article asap." She clicked on Foxnews.com: "WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill." The White House double-crossed us, she thought. The report, by Major Garrett, then the Fox News White House correspondent, cited "senior administration sources" and said that the "Obama White House opposes a move in the Senate, led by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, to raise federal gasoline taxes within still-developing legislation to reduce green house gas emissions." Including two updates to his original story, Garrett used the word "tax" thirty-four times.
First of all, Graham never supported the tax. Second of all, it was factually untrue that such a tax was even in the bill. But the suggestion stuck, and Fox News kept with the story, and soon the whole conservative community had slammed Graham with it. It was at that moment that Graham started planning an exit strategy -- and the bill fell apart from there.
In a talk with Dave Roberts of Grist today, Lizza touched further on the incident, calling it the "greatest mystery of the whole saga." He goes on:
"A case can be made that that killed C&T; for 2010. Perhaps it never would have passed, anyway, but that really was the beginning of the end ... Everyone in Washington who followed this debate closely has a favorite suspect, but I never figured out who it was. But the universe of suspects is quite small."Some believe it was Rahm Emanuel or David Axelrod, two of the president's closest advisers who had opposed participating in the climate legislation process from the get-go. Others believe it was a well-intentioned staffer who wanted to get rid of a potentially bad policy. We may never know who it was, but from there on out, no Republican would come within fifty miles of the supposedly gas tax-laden climate legislation. And then Graham jumped ship. And then the climate bill died. It may have died anyways, as Lizza notes, but this was the event that can be pinpointed as the beginning of the downward spiral.
It should also be evidence of how fickle and ego-driven our political system is, that what is essentially an issue of semantics -- along with a single power play from an insider -- potentially has the ability to slay an entire piece of important legislation.