Kerry-Graham op-ed gives climate bill supporters new hope for progress

Kerry-Graham op-ed gives climate bill supporters new hope for progress

The pairing of Democrat John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE and Republican Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support Democrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Warren: Officials have duty ‘to invoke 25th amendment’ if they think Trump is unfit MORE on global warming, even if only to pen an op-ed column and not actual legislation, is a step forward for the climate bill.

Just how big of one and how many more steps there are before a bill becomes law is the subject of debate.

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On Sunday, Sens. Kerry (Mass.) and Graham (S.C.) wrote in The New York Times that they were “convinced” they had found a “framework for climate legislation to pass Congress” and a “blueprint for a clean-energy future.”

As the words suggest, there is still a lot of work to do.

Kerry and Graham drew broad strokes as to what a climate bill could look like: more support for nuclear energy, some mechanism to control energy costs and a tariff on goods from countries without a carbon cap.

But the lack of specifics didn’t dampen the spirits of supporters who have heard for weeks from pundits that a climate bill couldn’t pass this year.

In an e-mail, Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club quickly called the column a “game-changer.”

On Monday, Dan Lashof, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, added an enthusiastic second.

It would be hard to “overstate the significance of this joint declaration,” Lashof blogged.

“It ensures that the Senate bill will be bipartisan. It demonstrates that there is a pathway to 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. And it establishes comprehensive energy and climate legislation as the next item on the Senate agenda after healthcare reform, meaning there is a very real shot at Senate passage prior to Copenhagen,” Lashof wrote.

Joshua Freed, a climate specialist with the centrist Third Way, which backs climate legislation, was a little more reserved in his assessment, but nevertheless saw the column as a significant development.

“Up until about two weeks ago, people talked about Graham as a future ideal who was key to moving forward, but they were uncertain how much political capital he was willing to put on the line,” Freed said.

With the column, Graham steps forward as one of the leaders in the effort to craft a bipartisan compromise, Freed said.

“This really does add further momentum to the bill,” he said.

Even Scott Segal, an attorney at Bracewell &Giuliani who represents utilities and manufacturers leery of a climate bill, said the column was a “step forward” in that it provides a road to a compromise.

He liked the endorsement of a price collar to keep energy costs in check, the acknowledgement that nuclear power will play a critical role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions and the realization that fossil fuels will still need to be developed in the near term.

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The concessions, though, could win support in some quarters while costing some in others, Segal said.

“I am not sure that those senators most enthusiastic for quick climate change legislation will tolerate either streamlined permitting for nuclear plants or expanded offshore drilling,” Segal said.

“While these concepts make great sense as energy policy, one could easily see votes dropping off in equal measure to votes being gained, were they included.

Indeed, the bill described in the op-ed is a far cry from the bill under active consideration by the [Environment and Public Works] Committee.”

Said Freed: “The devil is always in the details.”

Healthcare vote this week

There may have been a more substantive breakthrough on healthcare reform. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said last week that the bill authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusOvernight Defense: McCain honored in Capitol ceremony | Mattis extends border deployment | Trump to embark on four-country trip after midterms Congress gives McCain the highest honor Judge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester MORE (D-Mont.) would come under a critical cost target and even shave a bit off the federal deficit over the next 10 years.

The CBO concluded the Baucus bill would cost $829 billion and reduce the deficit by $81 billion while expanding coverage to 29 million.

But if the CBO provided new momentum, there is still a long way to go. Two Democrats, Sens. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Overnight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term MORE (W.Va.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Kremlin seeks more control over Russian internet | Huawei CEO denies links to Chinese government | Facebook accused of exposing health data | Harris calls for paper ballots | Twitter updates ad rules ahead of EU election Kremlin seeks more control over internet in Russia Wisconsin governor to propose decriminalization of marijuana MORE (Ore.), remain unhappy with the bill. The lone possible Republican supporter, Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), refuses to say how she will vote.

Another obstacle is the insurance industry’s stunning new criticism of the Baucus bill. America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, released a report Monday contending that legislation being considered by Congress could cost the typical family $4,000 per year in higher premiums.

The report marks one of the boldest efforts yet by the insurance industry to oppose Democrats’ legislation on healthcare reform. The White House and congressional Democrats had made courting the industry one of the central components of their campaign. Proponents of the Baucus bill say the report doesn’t look at other components that will make healthcare more affordable, especially subsidies to purchase insurance policies.

Even with the pushback from the insurance industry, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Baucus will have the votes. Committee leaders rarely schedule votes they could lose.

Many in the healthcare industry have been rooting for the Finance Committee, believing it offered the best hope for reform without too high of a price tag. But the price is rising, even before the Baucus bill is melded with another, more liberal version adopted by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee or with any of the possible House bills.

The hospital and pharmaceutical industries struck deals with Baucus and the White House to limit their exposure to $155 billion and $80 billion, respectively.

Now those groups have seen their deals scotched. The Joint Committee on Taxation increased its estimate by roughly 30 percent for the fees Baucus would levy on drug makers, health insurers and medical device companies to pay for his bill.

These companies would not be allowed to deduct the cost of those fees from their taxable income, increasing the assessments from $17.2 billion to $22.2 billion for drug companies, from $40.5 billion to $60.4 billion for insurers, and from $29.9 billion to $38.6 billion for device makers.

And the health groups are highly concerned about the fact that Baucus’s bill would cover only 94 percent of legal U.S. residents and 91 percent overall, including illegal immigrants, and that the individual mandate to obtain health coverage was relaxed.

The result, they contend, is a level of coverage that would fail to produce the increase in business they need to offset the revenue they would lose. The bill would cut Medicare payments by $400 billion, and health insurance companies also would have added expenses from new federal regulations.

While lobbying feverishly to protect their interests, healthcare associations and companies face a tough decision about whether, or when, to join the insurance industry and start fighting against the entire healthcare reform enterprise.

Defense bill moves to conference

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With Senate approval of the fiscal 2010 Pentagon spending bill last week, the focus for lobbyists now shifts to the conference where the fate of several high-profile weapons systems will be determined.

House appropriators included funding for the now-defunct VH-71 presidential helicopter, but the Senate did not. The Senate also did not include funding for the second F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine, but did provide funds for 10 more Boeing-built C-17s. The House included funds for three C-17s, so lawmakers will have to negotiate on that program.

The additional money for C-17s, VH-71s and a second F-35 engine have all drawn a veto threat from the Obama administration.

Some defense-industry sources say it could come down to a compromise over funding for the presidential helicopter and the second engine. The administration may give in on the second engine if the appropriations conferees do not include more money for the presidential helicopter — which Obama personally said he did not want.

Defense appropriators from both chambers hope to have a conference report ready as early as this week. Much of the work at the committee staff level was already done by the time the Senate voted on its version of the bill.

Jeffrey Young and Roxana Tiron contributed to this column.