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How Can the Climate Bill Get to 60 Votes?

Last week, we commissioned an analysis of voting on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in the Senate, which was narrowly approved by the House with a relatively high amount of crossing of party lines: 44 Democratic nay votes, and 8 Republican yeas. The model used several variables, including lobbying contributions, per-capita carbon emissions in each state, and a Congressman’s ideology, to attempt to explain/predict their vote on the climate bil. Today, we’ll take that same analysis and apply it prospectively to the Senate.

But first, a few assumptions:

1. Al Franken has now jointed the Senate but we do not have any votes for him on which to form an ideology score. I am going to give him the numbes of his idol, Paul Wellsone. Does anybody really have a problem with my assuming that Franken, like Wellstone, is going to be very, very liberal? Didn’t think so.
2. Lobbying contributions are scaled to reflect the fact that Senators raise more on average than Representatives do.
3. A more controversial assumption is that we’re assuming that there won’t be nay votes from the left, of which there were almost certainly three (DeFazio, Kucinich, Stark) in the House. In other words, the model as I’ve run it here treats those three as yea votes. The reason I’m making this assumption is because: (a) it’s not so clear that DeFazio, Kucinih and Stark would have voted against the poll if their votes were needed for passage, and (b) this is just not something that seems to be in the gameplan of the progressives in the Senate; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin every once in a blue moon winds up being far enough to the left that he votes with the Republicans, but that’s juts about it.

And a few caveats:

1. The Senate will be voting on a different bill than the House’s version. The Senate’s version might be more or less favorable to, say, farm-state interests than the House’s, which could in turn alter the percentages.
2. The overall political tides may have shifted by the time the Senate considers the bill because of changes to the economy, Obama’s approval rating, gas prices, and perhaps even the weather, etc.
3. The key vote in the Senate is not really the vote on final passage, which this model would seem to get at, but rather the vote on cloture, or breaking the filibuster, which would require 60 votes. It’s not all that uncommon for a senator to vote for cloture and then against the underlying bill, or vice versa, although it seems to happen less often for major issues like climate change legislation.
4. These percentages are based on the relatively limited amount of knowledge embodied in the seven variables in the model; that should not be read to imply that there aren’t other factors, both tangible and intangible, that wouldn’t have a significant impact.

With all of that said, here are how the 100 senators rank in order of most to least likely to vote for the bill.

The only way any of these senators would vote against the climate bill is if they’re opposing it from the left, a possibility which we’re specifically ignoring for this analysis for the reasons described above. Diane Feinstein can be weird, I guess, but is unlikely to be so on climate legislation sponsored by her colleague Barbara Boxer — plus California is a low-carbon state that already has some alternative-energy infrastructure in place and could be a big net beneficiary from this bill.

There are a few bullets for the Democrats to dodge here, but none of them would seem to be fatal:

* Joe Liberman is Joe Lieberman. But he also sponsored a cap-and-trade bill last year, takes no money from the coal industry, and lives in a deeply blue, low-carbon state.
* Tom Carper relies pretty heavily on corporate donations, but the coal industry isn’t really one of his suitors and he usually falls into line on major Democratic policy priorities.
* Harry Reid takes a lot of coal money, although he also takes a lot of nuclear and alternative energy money and is, of course, the Majority Leader. And hard as it is to believe considering all the carbon that must be consumed to air-condition the Vegas Strip (it’s 2 in the morning here and still 90 degrees outside), Nevada is not a particularly carbon-intensive state. So I don’t think Reid’s yea vote is in much doubt, but the one way he could be problematic is if he’s unwilling to compromise on nuclear energy — a big chip the Democrats have in their arsenal — because of concerns over Yucca Mountain.

A much more serious concern for the Democrats is Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who voted against cloture on last year’s bill. Brown’s public statements have generally indicated lukewarm support for the bill, but also that he and the two senators from Michigan — Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow — are going to require some compromises to protect the auto industry. At the end of the day, a lot has already been done to assist the auto industry, and Brown, Levin and Stabenow are mainline liberal Democrats — their votes can probably be whipped, and their demands for compromise probably revealed to be bluffs. But their votes on the climate bill aren’t as certain as the analysis indicates.

Now we get into a set of Democrats who can occasionally be conservative, sometimes in order to protect corporate interests. But the overall combination that befalls each one breaks down in favorable enough ways that the Democrats probably have nothing really to worry about. Mark Warner, for instance, while taking a lot of money from coal, also takes some money from alt/nuclear and lives in a fairly low-carbon state.

These six votes would get the Democrats to 50, which would allow Joe Biden to break the tie — if not for that whole filibuster thing. You’re probably seeing some names here that you’re a bit surprised to see. Montana consumes a fair amount of carbon, and Max Baucus is pretty conservative, which seems like a bad combination — until you see how much money he’s getting from alt/nuclear PACs — the most of any senator on a per-cycle basis. Arlen Specter was generally thought to be sympathetic to cap-and-trade legislation — and that was before he turned into a Democrat. North Carolina’s economy is fairly low-carbon, which should help to prevent Kay Hagan from defecting. The other two senators on this list, however, could be more problematic for the Democrats, as Claire McCaskill has already tweeted her concerns about cap-and-trade, and as Tim Johnson voted against cloture last year — although South Dakota’s economy, for whatever reason, is much less carbon-intensive than North Dakota’s.

These are three senators for whom the percentages tended to move quite a bit based on relatively small tweaks to the model. Snowe and Collins are almost certainly going to be necessary parts of any path to 60 votes and are almost certainly going to be easier gets than at least half a dozen Democrats. And I tend to think the model has erred a bit pessimistic on them here. But that doesn’t mean their votes are assured.

Mark Begich, in Alaska, might be the more interesting case. Alaska is such an outlier in so many ways in terms of energy production that it’s hard to know exactly how all the incentives line up, but Begich claimed on his campaign website that he was a support of cap-and-trade, and Alaska also has its doses of environmentalism. If the Democrats decide to pull some trigger to get Lisa Murkowski’s vote — ANWR drilling, for example, which is highly popular in Alaska — they’ll undoubtedly be safe on Begich by that point.

To this point, even if everything has gone perfectly for the Democrats, that would still only put them up to 53 out of the filibuster-breaking 60. They’d then need to find 7 votes out of this group of 9, none of which are going to be easy:

North Dakota, West Virginia and Louisiana rank 2nd through 4th in per-capita carbon emissions. Five of their six senators also happen to be Democrats. If the Democrats could swap, say, Rockefeller and Byrd for two seats in Arizona, the going would be significantly easier on this issue. Byrd in particular: let’s face it — it’s not clear how many more votes Robert Byrd is going to cast in the Senate period, and at the end of the day, I don’t see one of his final ones being something that could significantly impair the coal industry in West Virginia. The path of least resistance to 60 votes probably lies elsewhere. Rockefeller, though, voted aye on cloture on last year’s bill and is probably attainable.

Mary Landireu and Byron Dorgan, on the other hand, voted ‘no’ on cloture last year. Dorgan chairs the Democratic Policy Committee and could perhaps be more vulnerable to peer pressure than certain other senators, but I don’t know what you do with the more conservative Landireu, unless you can spin some offshore drilling compromise to her liking or persuade her of the linkage between global warming and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Then there’s Ben Nelson, who’s a problem for the Democrats on nearly everything, plus Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, who can probably expect a few late-night phone calls from Rahm Emanuel.

One pattern we’ve seen this year, but which might be too recent to be picked up by DW-NOMINATE scores, is that the House Republicans seem to be sticking much more to the party line than the Senate Republicans. That could make these votes a bit more gettable than the numbers above indicate. Martinez voted ‘yea’ on cloture last year and Florida is a low-carbon state which might suffer significantly from a sea-level rise or an increase in Atlantic Hurricanes, but the fact that he’s retiring may actually harm the Democrats, since I’d gather that cap-and-trade is reasonably popular down in Florida (which passed a statewide permutation on the policy last year). Speaking of which, I’d love to see some polling on cap-and-trade in New Hampshire, which is both pro-business and pro-environment. John McCain pushed for a cap-and-trade policy on the campaign trail but has since claimed Obama is going about doing it in the wrong way. Perhaps he could be persuaded to vote to break the filibuster even if he votes no on the underlying bill. The one case where the model seems to be pretty clearly out to lunch is that of Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has already struck a highly skeptical tone about cap-and-trade.

The two names you sometimes hear mentioned from this list are Lindsay Graham and Lisa Murkowski. Graham has not been as “bipartisan” on core issues as he seems to want to make himself out to be, however, and lives in a state with very high unemployment. Perhaps you could get him if you added some offshore drilling provisions, which would probably benefit South Carolina, but I wouldn’t expect it to be easy. Murkowski, likewise, sounds basically skeptical but perhaps open to a compromise; again, the permutations of the way the bill might refract onto Alaska’s economy are complicated, and so I won’t feign complete knowledge here.

* * *

Overall, this is a slightly better assessment than I expected. Although the model considers only 52 Senators to be more likely than not to vote for the bill, there are somewhere between 62-66 votes that are perhaps potentially in play. But Joe Mauer-like precision will be required in targeting the undecided, and further compromises would almost certainly be needed, some of them designed to placate as few as one senator. The question is how many ornaments the Democrats could place on the Christmas Tree before it starts to collapse under its own weight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.