All eyes are now on the Senate

Last year, after passing it through no fewer than nine committees, the House approved the American Clean Energy and Security Act. ACES was a major legislative effort to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions, curb the worst effects of climate change and set the country on a sustainable energy footing for the 21st century.

All eyes are now on the Senate, where a similar effort is underway. After considering different approaches, Senate leaders recently decided to follow a sweeping bipartisan “outline” set forth by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Hopefully, this will allow the two chambers to address renewable energy, climate instability, carbon emissions and other related issues in a timely and comprehensive way.

Tackling a big issue with a big piece of legislation is the right thing to do. Still, the Senate hasn’t passed or even presented its own bill yet.

There have been indications that it’s moving forward, but as we saw during the battle for healthcare reform, nothing is final until it’s final. Until we see a bill, the House is in a holding pattern.

The question for me, as the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), is how we move the final product in a progressive direction. It’s difficult to have that conversation just yet — we can only talk so much about how to improve a bill that doesn’t exist. But there’s never a bad time to lay the groundwork for a bill that does what we need it to do.

First, the bill must do no harm. We need to make sure the Environmental Protection Agency retains authority to enforce carbon  emissions caps. We shouldn’t preempt state-level initiatives that augment federal policy. We should be setting renewable energy standards that go beyond the status quo, not formalizing that status quo by calling it a “target.” We can’t sacrifice good policy or the means to carry it out, whatever the reason.

We also need to make sure the final bill is an environmental and scientific achievement as well as an economic achievement. I included my Climate Change Safeguards for Natural Resources Conservation Act in ACES as it made its way through the House. The language creates a panel made up of federal natural resources agencies that will develop a comprehensive national strategy for combating climate change, assist states in developing statewide adaptation plans and improve the collection and dissemination of climate-related scientific information. There are many other important, targeted aspects of ACES that should be preserved or strengthened by the Senate.

Like healthcare reform, ACES was a product of compromise. The Senate bill will be the same. Everyone at the table will win a few and lose a few. But that doesn’t mean we need to water the bill down to nothing in the hopes that it will pass unanimously. We need to think big.

Political differences can be set aside here. Energy conservation is a major money-saver, and the future of green jobs in this country is unlimited if we act quickly to harness the market potential. ACES includes several important features that go beyond traditional political boundaries: money to retrofit existing buildings to be more energy efficient, a renewable energy standard for utilities, “smart grid” improvements to existing power infrastructure.

These are not partisan features — they’re technical improvements that everyone can agree on. They should be included in a final bill.

Every day we don’t pass a strong climate bill is a wasted opportunity, and certain states are starting to move on their own. On April 19, Colorado passed a law imposing stricter air pollution rules on power plants and transitioning coal plants to natural gas. Illinois has already passed an 11 percent statewide renewable electricity standard. More states will follow suit, with or without federal input. The laboratories of democracy should be allowed to continue their work on the environmental front, not hamstrung by a final climate bill.

Once we see a legislative product introduced in the Senate, the CPC will meet to discuss members’ priorities and establish a legislative strategy. During healthcare, progressives learned the value of working closely with outside organizations to achieve mutual goals, and we’re going to apply those valuable lessons as climate legislation is polished and finalized. Outside expertise will be welcome and necessary as we seek to focus the discussion on the best realistic policy outcomes.

Some of our efforts will be directed at holding the line on the accomplishments in ACES. At the same time, each member will have a unique perspective on the needs of his or her community, and as we did with last year’s forums on Afghanistan, the Progressive Caucus will seek to engage outside experts to hear about the big picture and form a comprehensive vision of what this bill should include.

This chance won’t come around again soon and it’s important that we get it right now, while the country is watching.

Grijalva is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.