Road Map: Climate Change Will Be Senate’s Next Battle Royal

Posted July 20, 2009 at 6:33pm

Climate change is the ticking political time bomb on the Senate’s agenda this fall, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has the timer set to go off in late September.

[IMGCAP(1)]With the debate on health care sucking up so much oxygen in the Senate these days, few are paying attention to the cavernous gulf among Democrats over how to tackle global warming and the lack — so far — of a way to bring Members together while also appealing to Republicans.

“It will blow up,— one senior Democrat said.

With Democrats from the South, Midwest, Plains and Mountain West deeply skeptical of creating a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, Senate Democrats could be even more split than they are on health care reform once the chamber actually begins to seriously focus on the issue.

“There’s a lot of opposition to climate change in the Senate,— said a senior

Senate Democratic aide. “You’re going to have to turn a lot of Democrats to get a bill.—

Still, Senate Democratic leaders are trying to give climate change legislation a real chance this year by holding weekly meetings with the chairmen of the six committees of jurisdiction as well as sessions with industry and activist groups on a weekly basis.

“We’re still trying to figure out the process — who’s going to be where and who cares about what,— explained one aide familiar with the talks.

So far, only the Energy and Natural Resources Committee has completed its bill — and some Democratic detractors have been pushing to separate the energy measure from the highly controversial proposal to create a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon dioxide emissions. While Environment and Public Works and Finance have the most jurisdiction, the Energy; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Foreign Relations; and Commerce, Science and Transportation panels also have a claim to it.

Sensing the need for more time — and possibly recognizing that the health care debate would be delayed deep into September — Reid recently gave his blessing to let the other panels postpone their markups until after the August recess. Reid’s original Sept. 18 deadline for a completed bill was pushing committees, such as EPW, to consider legislation this month instead. Now the deadline for a completed measure is Sept. 28, and EPW Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has said she would postpone her markup until September.

Another Senate Democratic aide said Reid’s decision to push off the debate came after Members requested time to float climate change proposals to constituents over the August recess.

Still, Democrats said the bare majority that House leaders eked out for their bill last month has many worried about the ability of Senate Democrats to cobble together the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster.

“If they had a close vote in the House, it makes it more difficult in the Senate to get us to 60 votes,— said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), whose vote Democratic leaders will have to court.

And just as House Democrats feel wary of taking on health care after a bruising fight over climate change, Senate Democrats are concerned about taking up a contentious global warming debate on the heels of marathon health care negotiations.

“Right now we’re focused on health care, and no one wants to think about the next big hard thing until we finish this big hard thing,— Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. She joked that the success of a climate bill could “depend on if we’re still speaking to each other after health care.—

Of course, the dividing line among Democrats is location, location, location. Democrats from conservative states as well as those with strong manufacturing bases are deeply concerned about forcing utility companies to accept a system in which credits for capping emissions are traded on the open market. Republicans have branded it as akin to a national “energy tax— under the assumption that any increased costs would be passed onto consumers.

In a speech that caught the attention of Senate Democratic leaders last week, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) took to the floor to say he would oppose a cap-and-trade system that would allow Wall Street too much control over energy prices — a problem he said was evident in the rapid rise of gasoline prices during the summer of 2008.

“I am for a low-carbon future,— Dorgan said. “But, in my judgment, those that would bring to the floor of the Senate a replication of what has been done in the House, with over 400 pages describing the cap-and-trade piece, will find very little favor from me, and I expect from some others as well. There are better, other and more direct ways to do this to protect our planet.—

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has been pressing to make sure the measure won’t create an incentive for manufacturing companies to move jobs overseas to China or India. Brown said he hasn’t gotten much traction in his push for trade protections, but he predicted that top negotiators could not afford to ignore him.

“They don’t likely get a bill if they don’t deal with manufacturing,— he said.

Moderate Democratic Senators know the lift is heavy, including Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), a central figure in the climate change debate who has recently been reaching out to leading House Democrats for advice on how to get a bill through the Senate.

But as Senate Democrats attempt to get their own party in line, Republicans interested in working with them say they’re largely being overlooked.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who promised to enact global warming legislation during his 2008 presidential campaign, said none of the principal Democratic negotiators on climate change has reached out to him. He noted he is working, as he did last year, with Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on a climate change bill.

“I have not lost my zeal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,— he said. “But I don’t think [Democratic leaders] have any Republicans.—