Chairmen split over climate bill


Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, who both represent states with significant coal industries, would like to proceed cautiously.

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“Most of the country doesn’t know what cap-and-trade is. They have no idea. I would say half the Senate have no idea what cap-and-trade is and could not explain it,” Rockefeller told The Hill on Tuesday.

He said climate legislation should not reach the floor before July of next year, putting the controversial bill on the schedule only months before Election Day.

“You have to get this stuff out to the American people before you change their lives, and we are not paying any attention to that,” Rockefeller said.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) would like to pass the bill as soon as possible.

“I’d love to get it done tomorrow,” said Boxer, who acknowledged others are less intent on moving that quickly.

In the middle is Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee whose home-state coal interests are not as significant as Baucus’s and Rockefeller’s but whose constituents are not as liberal as Boxer’s and Kerry’s.

A sixth chairwoman with jurisdiction, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) of the Agriculture Committee, told The Hill earlier this month that the Senate should focus on jobs and the economy.

Hanging in the balance is one of President Barack Obama’s top domestic priorities, as well as the president’s credibility among potential signatories to an international climate pact.

Five of the six chairmen tried to patch up their differences Monday during a meeting in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is trying to bring his senior colleagues together before sketching out a plan on how to proceed in 2010, when lawmakers will work with one eye on the midterm elections. Lincoln was traveling and unable to attend the meeting.

“We’ve got all kinds of difference of perspective of where the Senate is and where the votes are and where the Senate should try to move,” Bingaman said of his meeting with the other chairmen.

Rockefeller said his state would be the most affected and that his residents need more time to know what the bill is about.

“Right now they don’t, and therefore they are terrified and furious, and I don’t blame them,” he said.

This, however, may be a bid to push climate change legislation into 2011.

Democratic leaders and Democratic centrists facing reelection, such as Lincoln and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), might prefer a postponement to a tough vote on a controversial climate bill shortly before Election Day.

A Republican leadership aide said that a vote on climate change in July or August would be a political gift for Republicans.

“There would be nothing better than for us to talk about over the summer than Democrats pushing a huge new energy tax,” the aide said.

Baucus, who was the only Democrat to vote against Boxer’s climate bill in the Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this month, would also prefer to proceed more slowly on a broad bill next year, according to a Democratic source familiar with talks among the chairmen.

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Boxer noted, however, that Baucus told her he would mark up a climate change bill in the Finance Committee in January.

The move suggests Baucus may be trying to lay down his legislative marker in the debate before it leaves him behind.

Baucus unveiled his healthcare bill shortly before Obama delivered a major healthcare address to a joint session of Congress.

Senate sources on the Finance Committee said that Baucus felt he had to put his bill in the mix before the president weighed in or otherwise risked losing influence in negotiations.

A final climate law next year is critical for Obama administration officials, who will be negotiating the details of an international emissions accord to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. did not join. Failure by the U.S. to enact domestic limits would hinder U.S. leverage to help craft a binding global agreement.

The next round of United Nations climate talks begin Dec. 7 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Obama and other heads of state have conceded those talks will not yield a complete, legally binding agreement, but hope they will result in a political accord that sets the stage for final talks next year.

Boxer said that the hoped-for political accord next month in Copenhagen could help provide momentum for Senate action, easing fears among lawmakers that developing nations will not take meaningful steps on emissions.

She said her “clear impression” is that everyone in the Senate is working to get a bill passed in 2010.

At the moment, Reid appears to be siding with Boxer on timing. When asked Tuesday about the timing for climate change legislation, he told reporters that “we are going to try to do that sometime in the spring.”

But that goal could easily slip, just as Reid’s targets for healthcare reform legislation have slid repeatedly this year.

Senate Democrats will be hard-pressed to take up climate change legislation before May, because Reid has told colleagues that he will give higher priority to financial regulatory reform and a jobs bill.

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“Sen. Reid is talking about doing financial reform and a jobs bill before [getting] to this,” Boxer told reporters at a Tuesday briefing.

Lincoln said she did not think climate change legislation does much to address unemployment, while an energy bill passed out of the Senate Energy Committee does.

“I’m not in a hurry to do that,” she said of climate change legislation. “I think the energy bill we did in the Senate Energy Committee gets us a long way toward job creation and moving us from an old-energy economy to a new-energy economy, which is really what the objective is — lowering carbon output and lessening dependence on foreign oil.”

Bingaman, the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he would be willing to pass energy legislation separately from a cap-and-trade bill to address climate change.