Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Senator Specter Changes Parties, Doesn't Change Climate Politics

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

The 'interwebs' are abuzz today with the surprise announcement that moderate Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is switching parties and plans to run as a Democrat when he makes his 2010 re-election bid.

The move is clearly a powerful symbol of how far to the right the Republican Party has moved in recent years. What it means for policy is less clear.

Senator Specter's membership in the Democrat ranks would nominally give the party the sixty votes necessary to overcome the near-constant threat of Republican filibuster in the Senate (assuming Democrat Al Franken wins the contested court battle that will decide Minnesota's senate seat). That has prompted a sudden burst of optimism about the prospects of contentious Democratic policy priorities, including health care reform and climate change legislation.

ClimateProgress's Joe Romm blithely asserts, for example, that Senator Specter's new party allegiance will mean he'll change his stance on climate legislation. "One assumes that if he is going to seriously run as a Democrat, he'll support an energy and climate bill," Romm wrote today.

More astute observers, however, quickly recognize that Senator Specter's move changes little in the landscape of climate politics. For serious advocates of urgently needed and effective climate legislation, it's not hard to see why. We simply have to ask ourselves: does the "D" next to this free-thinking Senator's name suddenly change his vote on climate legislation? Of course not.

Senator Specter was clear today that he "will not be an automatic 60th vote for cloture."

"My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans," the Senator said at his press announcement this morning.

And as he left the podium today at a press conference that aired on MSNBC, Specter answered a question about climate policy by saying his views on a climate bill are unchanged.

The reality is, Senator Specter has always been (and still remains) a crucial swing vote necessary to get to any climate bill to the critical 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

The challenge ahead for climate advocates remains clear and the same today as it was yesterday: we urgently need a proactive strategy to address the substantive concerns of moderate 'Heartland' Democratic Senators (who's ranks are now one vote larger) and forge a new path forward to consensus on effective climate policy [see "The Sherrod Brown Test" for more on what that will take].

Like the other moderate Democrats he now joins, Senator Specter has long voiced concerns that climate legislation, if done poorly, would damage the already fragile manufacturing-based economy of Pennsylvania. He voiced support for action on climate change and even authored a bill with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). However, Senator Specter's support for climate policy has always required explicit and transparent cost containment provisions to limit the price of carbon and the impacts on his states' energy prices. Senator Specter voted against the McCain-Lieberman climate bill twice in the past and helped deny an up-or-down vote on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act last summer (effectively killing the legislation).

Democrat or Republican, Senator Specter remains an independent thinker and a difficult but critical swing vote on climate legislation. It will be no easier to meet his concerns than it will the other critical swing Democrats in the Senate. But his announcement today makes it all the more critical that climate advocates proactively work to craft legislation that meets the concerns of moderates like Specter while retaining the capacity to effectively drive the rapid transition to a clean and prosperous energy economy.

We've been working on precisely that challenge for years here at the Breakthrough Institute, and we remain committed to working with Senator Specter (and the rest of his new colleagues in the Democratic Party) to find climate solutions that minimize impacts on Pennsylvania and the manufacturing Heartland of America, create a prosperous clean energy economy, and invest in the new clean energy technologies and industries of the future.

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