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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Man in the Middle

Air Date: Week of September 4, 2009

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(Photo:Doug Webster, Netroots Nation 09)

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched parties; now, he's rethinking his position on climate change. Specter tells host Jeff Young he's open to a more aggressive approach to cutting greenhouse gases. We'll visit the Keystone State to find out where this key political player stands on global warming.

Transcript

YOUNG: California’s wildfires are one more reminder of the looming impacts of climate change. And they come just as Congress is about to return to work on climate change legislation.

In June the House passed a cap and trade bill. Now all eyes are on the Senate, especially a group of about twenty Senators—mostly Democrats--who could be the decisive votes. Among them is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who recently switched parties to run for reelection as a Democrat.

It’s been a long hot summer for Senator Specter.

TOWN HALL MEETING: One day God’s gonna stand before you, and he’s gonna judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the hill!

YOUNG: Specter’s health care town halls got so rowdy headline writers dubbed them “town brawls.”

SPECTER AT TOWN HALL: Now wait a minute, now wait a minute.

YOUNG: Specter could soon feel some heat on global warming, too. He’ll play a key role as a new member of the committee drafting the Senate’s version of a bill to
limit the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted, while setting up a system to trade emissions permits—known as cap and trade.

SPECTER: I believe we need legislation on global warming, on climate change. And I joined the environment and public works committee specifically so I’d
have a seat at the table because I consider it such an important issue.

YOUNG: I caught up with Sen. Specter in the midst of his hectic home state tour: conservative hecklers on one day, a convention of liberal bloggers the next. In front
of a mostly Democratic crowd in Pittsburgh, Specter talked up his record on climate change.

SPECTER (TO AUDIENCE AT CONVENTION): I think the global warming issue is long past due. In the last Congress, I supported the Bingaman and Specter bill, which was cap and trade. And, I support what President Obama wants to do.

YOUNG: But Specter left out a few details. He has not voted for any major climate bill in the Senate. The bill he sponsored with Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman did not cut emissions as much as scientists say is needed.

Nor did Specter mention the letter he signed last month, along with nine other democrats, setting conditions for support of a climate bill. That letter calls for so-called
carbon tariffs, or penalties on imports from countries like China if they do not join an international climate agreement. The president opposes that, calling it
protectionism.

I asked Sen. Specter how he reconciles that record with support for the Obama agenda on climate change.


Sen. Specter takes questions at Netroots Nation, a convention of liberal bloggers in Pittsburgh. The previous day, he’d faced conservative hecklers at a town hall meeting. (Photo: Doug Webster for Netroots Nation 09)

SPECTER: Well it is the job of a senator to offer suggestions to what the president proposes. And then to try to work it out. You get legislation through accommodation by trying to work through it. Our goals I think are identical and how we get there is a subject for discussion.

YOUNG: Is that element of trade some sort of carbon tariff or a barrier say on Chinese steel, for example, is that a potential deal breaker for you on a vote for a climate change bill?

SPECTER: Well, at this point, I would not begin to talk about any deal breakers. I would say that we have to treat US industry fairly. When it comes to imports. I have argued 13 cases in the international trade commission. but let’s try to work it out.

YOUNG: Has your switch to the Democratic Party changed your position on energy or climate change at all?

SPECTER: No I had the same position as a Republican. I co-sponsored the Bingaman-Specter bill which was cap and trade.

YOUNG: Right, but one that a lot of the environmental community views as too weak in terms of its emissions reductions.

SPECTER: Well, the objective of legislation is to get it passed. I’m not in concrete on the standards we need to do something, which is technologically sustainable. Warner-Lieberman, which had tougher standards, proposed items, which we didn’t have the technology for. And also to get a bill passed you’ve got to have broad support.
But this is incremental, this is step by step and I’m prepared to negotiate and discuss tougher standards bearing in mind the total picture of jobs maintaining and
getting sufficient support to get it passed. We don’t want a super bill if you can’t get it passed.

YOUNG: If it sounds like Senator Specter’s trying to straddle a fence on those questions, well, consider the political terrain he’s trying to cover in Pennsylvania. It’s a
major coal mining state. And despite declines in steel and heavy industry, there are still 800 thousand workers in a manufacturing sector that’s sensitive to both foreign
competition and energy prices. But political scientist Terry Madonna, at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says the state’s economy is starting
to green a bit.

MADONNA: The environmental community in Pennsylvania has shifted its focus to job creation and arguing that the energy or environmental changes they have proposed will produce new jobs, good paying jobs and I think that it’s an argument that has gained some momentum.

YOUNG: So Senator Specter’s got a real balancing act here, supporting those traditional energy intensive industries and this emerging green economy. And now he’s trying to do that as a Democrat?

MADONNA: you know, Senator Specter if nothing else is like Houdini through his political career, a master escape artist. I think that the senator will be hard pressed not to vote for a final version of the climate bill. But he is in the middle politically and what he does on the climate bill in particular in the senate is going to be very much observed and I think will be one of the two or three very important factors in
his primary battle with the left leaning congressman Joe Sestak.


The challenger: Specter’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Joe Sestak, cosponsored the House’s climate change bill. (Photo: Steve Stearns)

YOUNG: Polls show Specter well ahead of Joe Sestak, a two-term congressman with a strong military background. But Madonna sees evidence that the Sestak challenge is pushing Specter to the left on issues like climate change. At a campaign stop, Representative Sestak told me he’s an enthusiastic supporter of the global
warming bill that emerged from the House, written by Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey.

SESTAK: I had it as one of my campaign issues. So it was one of the five pillars that I ran on. And that’s why I immediately co-sponsored when it first went to Congress the
Waxman bill on climate change.

YOUNG: In contrast, Specter says he has not studied the Waxman-Markey bill enough to know if he supports it. A spokesperson says comments coming into the Senator’s office show Pennsylvanians have a high level of interest in the climate bill and they’re about evenly split for and against.

And Specters still hearing plenty from Pennsylvanians upset that he switched parties. Nevertheless Specter says his political life is easier as a Democrat.

SPECTER: I like it. And I don’t have to look over my right shoulder anymore. So, it’s comfortable again.

YOUNG: But not too comfortable. Now, as he mulls over his vote on climate change, Senator Specter might be looking over his left shoulder, instead.

CURWOOD: Coming up – the dose makes the poison – except sometimes, it doesn’t. Chemicals and hormones just ahead. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

 

Links

The League of Conservation Voters’ scorecards for the environmental voting records of Sen. Specter…

…and the scorecards for Rep. Sestak.

Read the Environmental Defense Fund analysis of the Bingaman-Specter bill and other climate bills offered last year.

Click here to see a graph of emissions reductions of Bingaman-Specter compared to other bills offered last year.

Learn more about the trade implications of a “carbon tariff” in this Living on Earth interview with George Washington University law school Professor Steve Charnovitz.

 

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