Healthcare debate heads for Dec. clash with Copenhagen climate conference

Healthcare reform and climate change will conflict directly next month when lawmakers from around the world gather in Denmark for the United Nations climate change conference and the Senate debates a healthcare bill.

As many as 10 senators had planned on traveling to Copenhagen for the conference, which is scheduled from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18.

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But it now appears they may have to stay in Washington to work on healthcare.

Democratic leaders sent out a notice Monday morning alerting senators that when the chamber returns to session after the Thanksgiving holiday, “roll call votes could occur at any time during the day and evening, with weekend sessions likely.”

This has created a conundrum for senators such as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who have primary jurisdiction over the issue and were planning to attend the summit.

The unfinished state of healthcare reform has also thrown into question whether President Barack Obama will attend the conference. The president has said several times over the past few months that healthcare reform is his top domestic priority. He has yet to make a final decision on whether to go to Copenhagen.

“We would have obviously preferred that healthcare would’ve been finished a long time ago, and we would be in an energy debate, but that didn’t happen,” said a senior administration official in a Monday briefing for reporters.

Kerry said he is scheduled to deliver a speech during the second week of the conference and still plans to fly overseas.

Even so, he conceded that his plans may fall apart.

“It’s tricky; we’ll have to see where we are,” he said. “It depends on the timing.”

Boxer said she may have to stay in Washington, even though she is the lead author of the only comprehensive climate bill to pass out of a Senate committee this year.

“For me, I would have to be here,” she said. “I’m not going to miss any important votes on healthcare.”

Global warming policy experts say the lawmakers would play an important role in the negotiations, which are expected to produce a political agreement to serve as the basis for a binding international agreement next year.

“They are some of the strongest emissaries we can have as advisers to the negotiators and as people who can really present what is going on the Senate,” said Dave Hamilton, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club.

“They are people who can articulate what is going on in the Senate and speak about state and regional [emissions] caps,” he said.

The attendance of senators at next month’s conference is all the more important because the upper chamber has failed to pass a climate change bill, while the House did so in June.

“Having a [Senate] bill would be much, much better going into Copenhagen,” said Hamilton, who added: “The slow pace of the healthcare debate is what has determined that wouldn’t happen.”

Senators could explain to negotiators from other countries that Congress has failed to pass a climate bill because of wrangling over healthcare, and not because of a lack of political will.

“We certainly would have liked the Senate to have completed its action so we could go to Copenhagen with a firm number and a firm idea of where we’ve already acted,” said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation.

Mendelson said climate change legislation has moved much more slowly than hoped because it is “caught behind the politics of something else high on our domestic agenda, which is healthcare.”

“It would be ideal if some senators are there to explain that the U.S. Senate is moving forward on legislation that will be critical for countries who want to know if the U.S. can deliver on what’s promised,” he said.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who told his staff that he wanted to attend the Copenhagen conference, said he has an important role to play.

“I think it’s important to be there and to have senators there,” said Udall. “I’m just trying to follow it very closely to make sure I can play a productive role there.”

Udall noted that for every major international treaty, “you have Senate observers that are part of what’s going on in the treaty negotiations.”
Senate involvement is seen as critical, he said, because the chamber votes to ratify all treaties.

But Udall also said that if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announces that he needs all Democrats present to overcome Republican delaying tactics on healthcare, “I’m not going to Copenhagen.”

Next month’s conference in Copenhagen is not expected to produce a final treaty, but negotiators hope to forge a political agreement that can serve as the basis for a formal treaty to be hammered out over the next year.

If the healthcare reform debate drags into January or February of next year, it will be all the more difficult to pass climate change by the end of the year. The lack of a final bill would complicate final treaty negotiations, experts say.

“The real thing that will benefit climate legislation is breaking up the traffic jam so that at the first of the year we can start fresh and run hard,” said Hamilton of the Sierra Club. “For my mind, everything takes longer than you think it’s going to take, so you better start now.”


Sam Youngman contributed to this article.

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