Red wine, Blue Dogs, green agenda

A tin of Costco lasagna and some red wine may hold the key to solving the climate change debate — at least in the House Democratic Caucus.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) has been hosting lasagna dinners in the Methodist House apartment near the Capitol that he shares with Blue Dog Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) in an effort to find common ground in the increasingly tense debate over a cap-and-trade bill.

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Welch has been inviting conservative Blue Dogs like Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and members from industrial states like Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Mich.) to meet with more liberal Democrats like Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) to talk about the details of the looming cap-and-trade bill. Some of the more environmentally inclined Democrats joked that they could be called the “Green Dogs.”

Coincidentally, the apartment is the former home of Al Gore’s parents, and Gore went there to write much of his environmental treatise, Earth in the Balance.

“It’s a great opportunity for lawmakers to just visit,” Welch, one of those environmentally inclined Democrats, said. “We talk about Doyle’s baseball team in addition to carbon offsets.”

There are usually eight to 12 members, mostly from the Energy and Commerce Committee. Sometimes Welch cooks. Sometimes he heats up a big Costco tin of lasagna. He even bought a flat-screen television so the lawmakers could keep track of basketball games.

“Our carbon footprint expanded dramatically,” quipped Cooper.

At the most recent gathering, two weeks ago, Welch kept his eye on the Celtics game while the Blue Dogs stressed the need to distribute money back to people whose utility bills rise, rather than directing the funds toward new programs.

“I agree with that,” said Welch.

Meanwhile, a cap-and-trade vote looms in the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is scrambling for votes to get the bill to the floor by his self-imposed deadline of Memorial Day.

It’s not clear how much progress Welch’s gatherings have made or if it will help jar loose the legislation from committee, but participants say they’ve each come to understand the other side a little bit better.

And that understanding comes in handy, considering the dinners have blossomed in an atmosphere made tense not just by the wall of Republican opposition and Democratic infighting, but the bitterness lingering from last year’s coup, in which Waxman ousted longtime Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

“There’s so much more that we have in common than we realize,” Welch said.

Welch, a sophomore House member, brought the idea with him from the state Senate in Vermont. He said the dinners allow for a degree of informality that can’t be achieved at a reception or a restaurant.

“It helps us to understand the practical challenges we each face in this historic legislation,” Welch said. “I come from a state that isn’t dependent on coal. They have transition costs that are really legitimate.”

Doyle, a leader among the centrists, said the dinners have been “productive.”

“Peter’s a great guy and he buys an above-average bottle of wine,” Doyle said. “Any time I can get an evening like that in Washington, D.C., I’ll take it.”