Energy Legislation Pushed Further Aside as Health Care Fight Continues

Posted August 16, 2009 at 11:06pm

With health care town halls generating all the heat this August, global warming legislation has been left to simmer on the back burner.Democrats and President Barack Obama are in the throes of an all-out public relations war to rescue their health care plans, which have been beset by falling poll ratings and increasingly vitriolic attacks. As such, Democrats have been far less focused on their climate change ambitions, which they still hold even as the calendar gets more crowded and lawmakers’ stomachs for tough votes shrink.But while all the recent focus has been on health care, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any action on energy.The House passed its version before the July Fourth recess, and Senate Democrats say they are still committed to doing an energy bill this year. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who held a two-day energy summit in Las Vegas, has set a Sept. 28 deadline for Senate committees to report out a bill.“We are doing three big things in the fall: health care, energy and regulatory reform,— a Senate leadership aide said.Democrats say that while the spotlight is on health care, they are quietly negotiating the nitty gritty details of a cap-and-trade bill that can pass the Senate, perhaps garnering the votes of Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has backed similar legislation in the past.Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is working with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on the climate change bill and plans to introduce it when the Senate returns from the August recess. In the meantime, while much of official Washington is on vacation, staff members are holed up in committee offices hashing out the details, far from the glare of the national spotlight.“In our hallway, it looks like National Airport with all the comings and goings,— a senior Democratic staffer on the Environment and Public Works Committee said. “We’re pretty much at full tilt.— Boxer will also be traveling this month with a group of other Senators to Alaska — at the invitation of Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) — to look at the effects of climate change. They will attend a dinner hosted by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who is one of the Republicans Democrats hope will ultimately vote for the bill.Backers still hope to clear Senate committees in September, but Reid’s timetables haven’t been sticking of late, particularly his goal of getting health care out of the Senate Finance Committee before the August break. Finance negotiators now have a Sept. 15 deadline for unveiling a deal.Like health care, energy features intraparty splits and regional divides. Similarly, just a handful of Republicans at best are likely to come on board. Senate Democratic leaders also don’t have the option of forcing something through on a simple majority vote using budget reconciliation rules, as they do on health care. And as health care keeps getting delayed, it could crimp the timeline for doing an energy bill.“Obviously, the health care debate has grabbed the media attention,— said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. “The situation right now is not unlike the situation where the House was in the spring,— he said, when people were distracted by issues such as the stimulus package and doubted the bill’s prospects. All the while, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) were quietly crafting the legislation. “The health care slugfest may go on, but the committees are still moving forward,— he said. “A lot of the heavy lifting has been done in the House.—Republicans are forecasting doom, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has said he wants to kill any cap-and-trade measure. “I think the necessity for Democrats to fire on all cylinders on health care and the unwillingness to put their neck out there on some other possibly unpopular proposal makes it less likely they’ll get cap-and-trade,— one GOP leadership aide said. “That and they have to figure out how to keep Barbara Boxer from being the face of it in the Senate.—Reid and Obama will have to step up to sell any plan that has a chance of garnering 60 votes, Democratic and Republican aides said.Democrats will also have to find a way to appease their colleagues who worry a cap-and-trade system could send jobs overseas to competitors who don’t face the same regulations. Ten Senate Democrats from manufacturing states wrote a letter demanding that any bill include tariffs on imports from countries that do not impose new carbon controls on their industries. The House bill includes a tariff provision, but the White House and some trade groups are cool to the idea, fearing it could spark a trade war.Last week, the National Association of Manufacturers stepped up its attacks on the bill and released a study it paid for contending that the House-passed bill would cost millions of jobs by 2030, releasing state-by-state figures aimed at swaying Senate votes.Those figures are disputed by Democrats and cap-and-trade advocates, who say the bill will make the United States a leader in green technologies that it can then export around the world.Backers also counter the skepticism over whether the Senate can get a bill done by touting the White House’s strong desire to have a bill in hand before climate talks are held in Copenhagen in December. If the Senate energy bill stalls, the Environmental Protection Agency has already started drafting carbon controls via existing authority under the Clean Air Act. A number of liberal environmental groups have advocated ditching what they consider watered-down climate legislation in favor of that route. That gives the Obama administration either a fallback position or a club to bring industries and reluctant Senators back to the table.“The EPA has the obligation under the law and the science to do something, and they will unless Congress does something first,— Kreindler said.