US Senate loses key ‘yes’ vote for climate change bill in Massachusetts special election

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Publish date: January 19, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

BOSTON – In an upset victory in a special election for the Senate seat of late Massachusetts Democrat, Ted Kennedy, Republican Scott Brown defeated his Democratic challenger Martha Coakley, dealing another blow to passing comprehensive climate change legislation this year by knocking down the number of Democrats in Congress’s upper chamber from passing the bill without procedural hurdles.

The fight over the climate bill has been delicate from the outset: Partisan politics have pitted the majority of Republican’s against it, and Democrats from key coal producing an reliant states have created tricky waters to navigate.

To make matters more difficult, the partisan tendencies that have managed to stick themselves to the proposed climate change bill in the Senate are, in the view of many analysts, misdirected anger over other tricky issues.

Brown’s victory was the most recent in a string of Republican wins. In November, Republicans won governorships in two states – New Jersey and Virginia – states that both voted for Obama in 2008. These results were followed by the announcement of two Democratic retirements by potentially vulnerable politicians including Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Representative Bart Gordon of Tennessee, with perhaps more to come.

Officials in Brown’s offices in Boston were unavailable for comment on how his election would affect the advancement of the climate legislation in the Senate, but so far Brown has not come down for or against the issue in public statements.

Leaders on the climate bill, like Massachusett Democratic Senator John Kerry, who co-authored it, had hoped maintaining a Democratic majority in the Senate would aid in passing the key legislation, if only along party lines, and the Brown victory therefore takes away what would have been a definite “yes” vote for the climate legislation that would have been cast by Ted Kennedy, who died of a brain tumor on April 25th.

Such partisanship has been the fate of climate legislation during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

Last June, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a cap and trade bill that would require reductions in industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over the next four decades. It also would allow pollution permits to be traded in a new regulated market. It garnered two republican votes, and one democratic defection.

Ever since, the climate change bill has languished in the Senate, where some members have been trying to find a compromise. Once Brown takes office, Democrats will hold 59 of the 100 votes in the Senate and the Republicans 41.

Brown victory message on other dissatisfactions

The Brown victory is anticipated to pose other difficulties to the democratic agenda, namely the healthcare bill, the partisan debate over which only served to shove climate legislation further into the shadows even as Obama hoped it would bring energy to the largely anti-climactic Copenhagen climate talks last month.  

Indeed, divisions over the US healthcare, Wall Street regularory reform, and other economic issue threaten to resonate deeply as a mandate on the Obama Presidency, especially as Congressional midterm elections approach in November, 2010, putting 35 of 100 senate seats up for grabs.

“The real message of Scott Brown’s victory is about the unpopularity of current health care proposals, President Obama has proposed a wide agenda of reform on everything from healthcare to the climate change, and it’s too much for Congress to swallow,” said Jonathan Temple, Director of Bellona USA.

“There are many unhappy voters in Massachusetts and other states and the Democrats felt their anger in this election,” he said.

At his victory rally in Boston, Brown warned that his election puts Democrats on notice that they may pay a political price come November if they do not take a second look as they work through the major pieces of President Obama’s legislative agenda.

“When there’s trouble in Massachusetts, rest assured there’s trouble everywhere and they know it,” Brown said in remarks reported by Greeenwire.

Climate bill supports always expected a bi-partisan push

Massachusetts supporters of the climate bill were quick to point out that the Brown victory was not a negative mandate on the climate bill, as it was never the subject of debate between him and his opponent Coakley.

And given the likely Democratic defections, they added that the issue always required bipartisan outreach to cross the 60-vote threshold, unlike the health care bill that was a central battleground in the campaign to replace Kennedy

Kerry was quick to play this up in a statement he sent to reporters.

“The political atmosphere doesn’t reduce the urgency of dealing with climate and energy, and the surest way to increase the anger at Washington is to duck the issues that matter in peoples’ lives,” said Kerry in his statement.

“There’s overwhelming public support and this can be a bipartisan issue,” Kerry added. “It doesn’t have to be polarized. Just listen to a conservative like Sen. [Lindsey] Graham or business leaders from across the ideological spectrum. This is the single best opportunity we have for energizing the economy, creating jobs and getting cleaner air, and if you sell those arguments you’ve got a winning issue.”

Many powerful environmental organisations here in the United States have poured cold water on the significance of the Massachusetts special election and said they are looking ahead to Obama’s State of the Union address scheduled for January 27th.

They have added that focussing on the fate of the climate legislation in the Senate obscures the point of what the backlash of Brown’s election means.

“This vote was about a lot of things, but clean energy wasn’t one of them,” Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation told Greenwire.

“The political roadmap for 60 votes on a climate and clean energy bill is vastly different than the health care bill,” he said, adding that the battle for the climate bill will be decided by centrists from both parties “particularly security hawk Republicans worried about our dependency on oil from hostile nations, and industrial state Democrats looking to create green energy jobs.”

Jonathan Temple contributed to this report.