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You thought the health care battle was ugly. Just wait for the climate fight.

Senator Barbara Boxer. Click image to expand.
Barbara Boxer

If you want a sneak preview of the fight over climate-change legislation in the Senate, look no further than the current battle over health care reform.

Compare: In July, the House released a relatively liberal health care bill, complete with a public option and mandates for individuals and employers. In June, the House passed a relatively liberal climate-change bill, complete with a cap-and-trade provision and a mandate that 15 percent of the nation’s electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2020.

Now the fate of health care reform lies with the finance committee, where Democratic members of the “Gang of Six” are making concessions—scrapping the public option in favor of a cooperative model, for example—in an attempt to win over Republicans. Similarly, when the Senate reconvenes in September, the fate of climate legislation will come down to a handful of senators hashing out compromises—or watering down the bill, depending on your perspective.

And given the politics and personalities involved, the Senate battle over climate change could get just as hairy.

The key committee drafting the Senate legislation is the Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Boxer says she plans to have a draft ready soon after the Senate reconvenes on Sept. 8. But that’s just one committee. Five others could produce their own legislation, including the agriculture, foreign relations, commerce, and finance committees. (The Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has already reported its.) Whether they do depends on how unpleasant they want to make Harry Reid’s life. Reid, the Senate majority leader, has set a deadline of Sept. 28 for the committees to finish.

But already some senators—Democratic senators, no less—have been hedging. This month, four Democrats said they think the energy provisions, like mandating renewable sources, should be separated from the climate provisions, like cap and trade. Combined, the bill is “too big a lift,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Sound familiar? That’s right: Senators are beginning to suggest the same solution for health care reform. Tease apart the easy stuff (requiring insurance companies to provide coverage) from the hard stuff (the public option), the thinking goes, and vulnerable members of Congress won’t get as bruised. This approach doesn’t make the hard stuff any easier to pass—it still takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. It just lets you declare partial victory instead of total failure.

Reid has declared that the climate bill will not be split. But then there remains the task of winning over a big chunk of conservative Democratic senators from states with major energy interests. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who represents oil and gas hub Louisiana, has declined to rule out the filibuster on climate-change legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is likely to speak for farm interests as a member of the agriculture committee—as in, less wind energy, more ethanol. Nelson and the two Democratic senators from North Dakota, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, joined Lincoln in calling for Reid to strip the legislation of its climate-change provisions. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio recently said, “I want to support this bill, but it’s got to protect manufacturing.” And in May, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana was the only Democrat to vote against a renewable-electricity standard during a committee markup. Add in Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin (both of Michigan), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Jim Webb (Virginia), and Claire McCaskill (Missouri), all of whom did not vote for the Climate Security Act of 2008, and you’ve got a good dozen Democrats likely to be skittish about climate legislation as envisioned by the House.

That’s not to say Republicans will be entirely united. The Democrats’ best shot at bipartisanship is in wooing the two senators from Maine—Susan Collins, the only Republican to get a thumbs-up from the League of Conservation voters, and Olympia Snowe, a co-chair of the International Climate Change Taskforce. Sen. John McCain is also seen as a possible supporter, according to a Republican familiar with the negotiations. But that’s three votes. If Democrats want to clear 60—they don’t really have the option of budget reconciliation, as they do with health care reform—they’re probably going to need to make some major concessions.

Like what? The debate so far has focused less on the carbon-emissions targets—the House promises a 17 percent reduction by 2020, an 83 percent reduction by 2050—and more on the regulatory nitty-gritty. For example, some senators have said that any climate bill must include a “border adjustment mechanism,” i.e., a tax that would prevent countries from profiting by not following the same environmental standards as the United States. Another element being debated is the size of America’s strategic oil reserve, which is maintained to protect against huge swings in energy prices. But these changes alone are unlikely to appease the moderate Democrats.

Luckily for Obama, he has the numbers on his side. A new Washington Post poll shows broad support for the president’s handling of energy policy. (Fifty-five percent of Americans think Obama is doing it right, compared with 30 percent who don’t; 52 percent support cap and trade, while 43 percent do not.) Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the House bill, if passed, would cost the average American household only $175 per year in 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency predicted it would cost between $80 and $110 a year. (Republicans say the cost would be higher.)

But as the health care debate has shown, public support matters little, and facts matter even less. And even if health care reform does pass, it’s unclear that Blue Dogs will be eager to lie down for the administration a second time. In which case, perhaps climate change—not health care—could be Obama’s Waterloo.