Read Slate's complete coverage of the BP oil spill.
When Waxman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought the Waxman-Markey bill to the floor, they forced Obama's hand. He began pressing members, Gore worked the phones from Nashville, and Emanuel put aside his misgivings and mounted an effective whip operation. With an impressive last-minute display by Pelosi, the bill passed 219-212—and then the momentum dissolved in the face of conservative opposition. Obama's stealth strategy failed to take into account the vigor of American denialism and opposition to cap-and-trade. It also failed to anticipate that unforeseen cataclysms could make climate legislation harder to pass in 2010 and beyond than it had been in 2009.
It's a cruel irony that the epic disaster in the Gulf—a wakeup call to the need to reduce our dependence on oil—makes it harder to pass a bill that would help us do so. Expanded offshore drilling (and the revenue it would bring) was the chip Obama hoped to use to draw oil-state senators into a grand bargain that would also include subsidies for nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, with a modest carbon cap in return. The oil spill blew up that idea by taking expanded deepwater drilling off the table, at least for now. With few chips left, Obama appears to be hoping that public anger over the spill can help drive a new version of the climate bill. Soon, we'll know whether he really means it. Democratic leaders in the Senate have been floating the idea of an energy bill without a carbon cap—which would be yet another failure of nerve by a group of legislators badly in need of adult supervision. Passing a real climate bill will be excruciatingly difficult. Waiting will only make it harder. It's time for Obama to intervene on the Hill, silence the naysayers inside his own administration, harness the public mood, and make good on his promise to fight.
This piece is adapted from The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight To Save the Earth and published here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
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Correction, June 10, 2010: The original version of this article described Henry Waxman as a senator. (Return to the corrected sentence.)