Road Map: Health, Climate Bills Yield Many Parallels

Posted October 26, 2009 at 6:46pm

When Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) kicks off the three-day markup of her climate change bill today, the opening statements, debate on amendments and even the final vote aren’t expect to break through the din of the health care debate.

[IMGCAP(1)]Indeed, despite the scope of the legislation — a sweeping set of reforms to the nation’s energy policies that includes a groundbreaking cap-and-trade emissions provision — it’s unlikely to make waves on the public’s radar until early next year.

Add that to the fact that there’s less chance of the final bill resembling Boxer’s legislation than of ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) joining Greenpeace, and many around Washington might be inclined to dismiss this week’s work as political theater.

And that, aides on both sides of the aisle say, is exactly how Democrats want it to be.

In essence, Democrats are in the early stages of the same legislative strategy they have used this year to move

health care legislation. For instance, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee moved its liberal reform bill this spring — months before the issue was ripe for a floor vote and while the nation was preoccupied with the stimulus bill, the auto industry bailout and other economic concerns.

As in the health care fight, moving the more aggressive climate change reforms now while the nation is distracted with other issues should help blunt the effects of GOP opposition, allowing progressives to set down a fairly pure marker on the debate.

“Democrats want to move the committee process on cap-and-trade while health care is in the headlines [because] it is such an unbelievably divisive issue,— a GOP aide said, noting that the HELP bill moved through the committee with almost no controversy earlier this year.

Under this strategy, more moderate approaches will likely then be considered in other committees of jurisdiction — potentially in the Finance Committee, where Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has just produced a moderate take on health care legislation.

The more moderate climate change legislation, one Democratic aide said, will then be used to “throw cold water on the work Boxer— and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) are doing, as Baucus’ health care bill did, at least temporarily, for the public insurance option in the health care fight.

At that point — likely in January or early February — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would step in, help cobble together a compromise bill for a final March push across the floor before election-year concerns end any substantive legislating for the year.

There are other key similarities between the two fights. Both the health care and climate change reforms will mean widespread upheaval in large sectors of the economy and will target massive industries with deep pockets and long-standing ties to the GOP. Baucus, long a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing, will again figure prominently in the energy debate.

Like on health care, Republicans have also used economic arguments to keep their often-fractious Conference together in opposition to Boxer’s bill, and aides in both parties expect her legislation to emerge from this week’s markup largely intact.

As in the case of health care where Reid at least initially was skeptical about the prospects of a public option, the Democratic leader has thus far reacted coolly to the idea of a large-scale cap-and-trade program.

There are big differences between the two debates, most notably the efforts by Kerry and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to put together a bipartisan climate change bill. Unlike the health care debate, where bipartisan proposals were never given much of a chance in either party, Kerry, Graham and others insist there is room for an agreement. Lieberman and Graham have held bipartisan talks on a compromise bill that could form the basis for an agreement next year.

Unlike on the public option, which has garnered no GOP support, many Republicans appear willing to accept some sort of cap-and-trade or other emissions-reduction requirement — if the final energy bill also includes a big new nuclear power title.

On the Democratic side, there are also significant differences. Opposition to cap-and-trade proposals among moderates is much more pronounced at this stage than opposition to the public option was eight months ago.

Reid seems to have learned some lessons from the health care debate. Democratic sources said he wants to begin working on a compromise as soon as possible, at least at the staff level, which in part has driven the decision to hold the hearings this week. Reid’s staff, and the Majority Leader himself, did not become directly involved in the health care legislation until much later in the process, and Reid has taken significant heat in the past two weeks for his “closed door— work on the bill.