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Has Obama Painted Himself Into A Corner Over Climate Change?

After all, a good look at how Wednesday’s offshore drilling announcement will likely be viewed by individual Senators suggests [he] has.

As President Obama said in the earlier stages of the presidential campaign, opening up offshore waters will make about as much difference to US energy security as getting drivers to inflate their tires properly (he changed his stance on offshore drilling later in the campaign). Moreover, the importance of the decision isn’t yet known, because these areas of seabed haven’t been explored, having been off-limits for so long.

Little of the oil in question would be likely to flow before the end of even a two-term Obama administration. Next to the bigger issues of US energy policy, new drilling off the coast of just over half-a-dozen US states is small beer.

So the consensus is that this proposal is more about politics than policy — and if it is to be justified, it must be in terms of shepherding a successful climate bill through a fractious and partisan Senate. But is it a success, in those terms? Observers such as Ezra Klein, one of the sharpest watchers of congressional strategy over the past year, seem baffled by the White House’s game:

There may be some brilliant strategy underlying all this, but no one in the administration has seen fit to explain what it is.

The key problem is that 10 Democratic senators from coastal states have promised to oppose any bill that allows “unfettered” offshore drilling. Bernie Sanders, an independent Democrat-in-all-but-name from Vermont, is also signalling opposition. But the Democrats will need all 59 of their senators, plus at least one Republican defector, to get the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster.

Admittedly, the administration was successful in bringing most wavering Democrats into line over the healthcare bill, but the opposition over drilling shouldn’t be dismissed as mere grandstanding. In Florida, for example, tourism is a $65bn industry – the state’s biggest – while fisheries generated $710m at the end of the 1990s, according to a rather dated analysis. As the Democratic naysayers’ letter makes clear, both industries see offshore oil as a threat, and Florida is having its own tense political battle about drilling closer to the shoreline.

It will be difficult for the Democratic naysayers to spring back from the position they have now staked out. Those senators who had changes of heart over healthcare will at least be able to point to pocket-book benefits (coverage of pre-existing conditions, bans on rescissions) when they hit the campaign trail over the coming months. Those who change their minds over drilling will have to answer the far more toxic charge that they have sold out the local guy for the interests of Washington and big oil.

The breakdown: Whose votes might be gained?

All this would be worthwhile if the move could be counted on to pick up a balancing number of Republican votes. But only three current Republican senators – Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Tennessee’s Bob Corker – have any significant record of supporting green policies in the last Congress.

Add in the handful who show some genuine concern about climate change – Ohio’s Bob Voinovich, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, and Indiana’s Richard Lugar – and, optimistically, moderate-leaning ‘energy independence’ types who might be encouraged by the offshore deal (Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Texas’s Kay Bailey Hutchison, and, at a stretch, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker), and you get to 10 votes. For the sake of argument, let’s add New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg and Florida’s George LeMieux, who are both retiring and will not be fearing an electoral backlash, and with the climate bill’s main Republican backer, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, you reach 13.

This, it should be stressed, is an almost absurdly optimistic scenario, given the behaviour of congressional Republicans over the past year. For a Republican senator, the upside of supporting the climate bill might consist of some campaign donations from oil and gas companies that you would likely be receiving anyway, plus a warm fuzzy feeling of Doing The Right Thing. It certainly doesn’t look like you could count on picking up many votes, and most senators aren’t even seeking re-election soon =- and those that are have most to fear from primary challenges from the right, so aren’t likely to make concessions to the left. The downside, on the other hand, is that you would be seen as wrecking your leadership’s flagship political strategy, while enabling the agenda of someone whom a quarter of your supporters appear to believe is literally the Antichrist.

It’s just possible that some of the Democratic naysayers would moderate their opposition by voting to break the filibuster, and then switching to oppose the final bill. But that is a long shot. Unless the White House has some very sophisticated tricks up its sleeve, getting this bill through the Senate will require a legislative miracle on a par with the healthcare victory. And then the real work would start on getting it through the House of Representatives.

Financial Times, 1 April 2010