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Enter Jeff Bingaman, Climate Savior

(Y’all may have noticed Dave Johnson testing out the equipment for me in the last post. Big thanks to him for filling in. I’ll be around for a little while longer today, and then Dave will be flying solo through next Tuesday.)

It must not be fun being John Kerry. You get Swift-boated by a bunch of right-wingers, and you still come within a football stadium’s worth of people in Ohio of being President. Then you throw yourself into preventing catastrophic climate change for close to two years, only to get the tap on the shoulder in favor of Jeff Bingaman. Jeff Bingaman?

Boxer, Kerry and Lieberman haven’t been able to put together 60 votes for the carbon caps they’ve pushed. Graham gave up trying months ago. That leaves the bills Bingaman has shepherded through his Energy and Natural Resources Committee looking pretty good — and maybe like the only ones that have a real shot at passing.

It’s a new role for Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat who — unlike his bigger-name predecessors — rarely makes appearances on the Sunday talk shows, doesn’t give impassioned speeches and seldom injects himself into hot-button debates.

This is a beat sweetener if I’ve ever seen one, praising Bingaman for creating “solid pieces of legislation forged in the order of the committee process.” Actually, he co-wrote the 2005 and 2007 energy bills, not seen as solid by much of anyone. And the ACELA Act that he authored and passed through his Natural Resources Committee last year is a miserable piece of legislation, which independent experts believe would result in less clean energy produced than under the status quo. Bingaman’s now writing a bill with a utility-only cap on carbon, and presumably that would get attached to ACELA (hopefully a boosted-up ACELA) and some of the oil spill legislation that has been bandied about since the BP disaster.

Bingaman is right about one thing: this idea that you could sneak in a carbon-pricing scheme in the conference committee after not passing one through the Senate doesn’t pass the smell test. So it’s utility-only cap or nothing, it seems.

Brad Plumer notes that Bingaman has been a carbon-cap skeptic recently:

Last week, Senate Democrats caucused together and—as Dave Roberts reported—seemed to rally around a strategy for binding a price on carbon to various Gulf-related bills and then daring the GOP to block the whole thing. It was a go-for-broke move. And who knows? It might’ve worked. But lately, Bingaman’s been insisting that it’s “difficult” to envision a cap on carbon pollution getting 60 votes. That’s not the sort of thing you say when you’re preparing for a showdown.

Instead, Bingaman’s cobbling together a more modest bill that would only cap pollution from electric utilities (see here for the merits of that approach). He also has an energy bill that passed out of his committee last fall that would offer subsidies to various alternative-energy industries and force utilities to buy (a very modest amount) of renewable power. Combine all those together and you have a fairly weak bill that wouldn’t do nearly enough to put a dent in greenhouse gases and stop global warming. And could this bill even get 60 votes? Joe Lieberman recently told reporters that some Republicans have “promised to keep talking” about a utility-only cap. What are the odds those unnamed Republicans stick around when it finally comes time to take a vote?

Anything Bingaman seeks to pass isn’t going to look so hot unless the leadership steps in and makes it worthwhile. And even then, you have the expected Lucy-and-the-football moments with the Republicans.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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