Pelosi embarks on 'tricky business' of passing climate bill

A successful vote Friday could give the administration momentum on its biggest priority: healthcare reform.

Susan Walsh/AP
House Ways and Means ranking Republican Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, center, holds up a copy of the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation during a news conference on Capitol Hill Friday.

If all goes according to the Democrats’ plan, climate change legislation will pass the House on Friday.

The vote is likely to be close, and the bill’s contents are not exactly what many environmentalists were hoping for. But the point is to get something of what President Obama wanted, thus allowing him – and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – to claim victory on a top priority.

The bill calls for a reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020, and a cut of 83 percent by 2050. The mechanism for achieving that goal is a “cap-and-trade” system, in which industries buy and trade permits that allow them to emit carbon in prescribed quantities. During the presidential campaign, Obama promised a cap-and-trade bill that would auction off 100 percent of emission permits. In reality, only a portion will be auctioned, and the rest given away.

But in Congress, a win is a win. And victory on the climate change bill – formally called the American Clean Energy and Security Act – would also create a sense of momentum as Congress tackles Obama’s biggest priority, healthcare reform. The willingness of the climate bill’s lead sponsors, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California and Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, to make significant compromises in the name of passage could be instructive, analysts say.

“It’s a template in some ways [for health reform], though it doesn’t pave the way,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Success in the House also doesn’t guarantee the same in the Senate.

“You have geographical impediments, not so much ideological or partisan impediments,” Mr. Ornstein says. “You just have too many Democratic senators from coal- or carbon-dominated states. Bringing them on board is going to be a very tricky business.”

Republicans argue that the bill is too expensive, and would cost American jobs. They would rather address the nation’s energy challenge by building more nuclear power plants.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report saying that energy efficiency measures in the Waxman-Markey bill would save consumers 7 percent off their utility bills by 2020. Supporters of the bill have also touted figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projecting the cost to the average American household of just $175 a year by 2020, or 48 cents a day.

As with the economic stimulus package Congress passed early this year, no Republicans are expected to vote for the climate bill.

Thus, the scramble for votes has been on the Democratic side. When a key holdout – Rep. Collin Peterson (D) of Minnesota – announced Tuesday that he would vote yes, that appeared to be a tipping point. Congressman Peterson is the House Agriculture Committee chair, and he fought hard for agricultural and rural interests.

One concession he received was to put authority over “agricultural offsets” – credits given to farmers for engaging in practices that keep carbon dioxide stored in soil – in the Agriculture Department, not the EPA.

Another critical moment in the fight for climate change legislation came Tuesday afternoon, when Obama pitched hard for it in his press conference. The bill “will spark a clean energy transformation that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and confront the carbon pollution that threatens our planet,” he said.

Incentives in the bill “will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy,” Obama also said. “And that will lead to the development of new technologies that lead to new industries that could create millions of new jobs in America – jobs that can't be shipped overseas.”

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