By Ben Geman - 02/17/13 08:00 PM EST
Congressional Democrats will not commit to forcing votes on major climate change bills, even as they try to build political momentum behind President Obama’s promise to make global warming a second-term priority.
Obama’s State of the Union address called on Congress to create a “market-based solution” such as cap-and-trade to limit greenhouse gases, but vowed new executive action if lawmakers do not act.
Obama's allies in the Democratic Party are working hard to gain the political offensive on climate change and raise the topic's profile. On Friday, House Democrats announced a new "Safe Climate Caucus" and pledged to have members speak on the floor about climate change every day that the body is in session.
But it is not clear if these efforts will extend to putting lawmakers on the record on major legislation for the first time in years.
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rolled out a major plan Thursday that would impose carbon emissions fees on producers and importers of coal and petroleum, among other features.
Boxer said Thursday that she wants the bill to come to the floor by summer, but added that she has not discussed that prospect as yet with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). A Reid spokesman said it is too soon to talk about specific climate measures.
“Senator Reid absolutely intends to address this issue, but we will have to work with the committees and other interested parties to determine the best path forward,” spokesman Adam Jentleson said.
Even though Republicans control the floor in the House, Democrats have some procedural options they can utilize to put colleagues on record. They could offer a so-called motion to recommit following debates on other legislation, for instance.
Asked whether Democrats would use this tactic to seek a vote on creating a price on carbon emissions, a Democratic leadership aide said: “We don't advertise these votes in advance so can't possibly answer. [It] would be self defeating.”
The leader of the new Safe Climate caucus, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), didn’t say whether the lawmakers will use procedural tactics to get the House on record on pricing carbon.
Another prominent member of the group also conspicuously avoided committing himself to a serious push on major carbon legislation.
“We are looking and we will be working with the folks at the White House as well on different options,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a top ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Waxman noted that Obama’s State of the Union speech included proposals that Waxman said should get bipartisan support, such as a new grant program to aid state energy-efficiency efforts.
Waxman also touted his support for a tax on carbon emissions, expressing hope that the concept makes its way into fiscal policy debates. He called it a way to address climate change and the deficit at the same time.
But while future votes remain uncertain, Democrats are trying to seize the political initiative on climate change, outside of legislation.
“The Safe Climate Caucus is banding together to end the conspiracy of silence in the House of Representatives about the dangers of climate change,” Waxman said, noting the dearth of hearings and other GOP actions on climate change. “We won’t sit quietly while those who run the House deny the science and ignore the greatest challenges we face.”
The new Safe Climate Caucus follows Waxman’s creation several weeks ago of a new bicameral climate task force with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
The activity among Capitol Hill Democrats arrives as climate advocates are hoping Obama takes a muscular view of what he can accomplish with executive action – including establishment of carbon standards for existing power plants.
Environmentalists are not making floor action a focal point of their efforts right now. On Sunday, green groups held a rally at the National Mall in Washington and marched to the White House. Organizers said 35,000 activists attended. Urging the president to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline was a top focus of the event.
Nathan Willcox, the global warming program director at Environment America, said he would like to see bills come to the floor, but added that it’s not a “prerequisite for success.”
He said the new Capitol Hill climate caucus and task force can play an important role.
“I view it as creating political space and raising the visibility of [climate change] in general, and obviously if you have a floor vote, that’s one way to raise visibility even further, but if these various special committees and stakeholder groups are active as they can be, you can raise the visibility regardless of whether or not any bill even makes it to the floor,” he said.
The group 350.org supports the Sanders-Boxer plan, which would steer money from the carbon fee into green energy investments and consumer rebates, and also boost regulation of hydraulic fracturing and strip away oil industry tax deductions.
But 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn said legislation is not the group’s biggest priority at the moment.
“Ideally we would see a productive debate in Congress over a climate bill again, but we are not crossing our fingers for things moving quickly with our current Congress, so for now we are much more focused on what the president can do and executive actions on climate,” said Henn, whose group is at the forefront of pressuring the White House to reject the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
A floor battle on a measure like Sanders’ would also split Democrats.
It would be sure to face opposition from a number of centrist Democrats, including lawmakers from conservative states who are facing reelection in 2014.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) told The Hill that the way to address climate is not “digging into the pockets of middle class families,” but instead through more electorally palatable measures in areas like energy efficiency.
“I think we have to be very careful with any kind of tax,” Begich, who is up for reelection, told The Hill in a short interview Thursday evening.
It has been years since either chamber debated major climate legislation.
A cap-and-trade bill died in the Senate in 2008, while a sweeping energy and emissions-capping bill Waxman co-authored narrowly cleared the House in 2009, when Democrats had the majority.
But a version of the plan that now-former Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) crafted in 2010 never reached the floor.
This post was updated at 3:12 p.m.