Are the Wheels Coming Off Climate Legislation?

By Kennedy Maize

Look out, the political wobbles are beginning for Senate climate legislation. The wheels could come off anytime soon now.

The Energy Daily reported that the Senate’s schedule for taking up climate legislation won’t begin on Sept. 8, as originally announced. Instead, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the work on the bill will start later this month. I doubt it.

Boxer’s rationale was the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), recent hip replacement surgery for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and the coming battle over health care reform. What I see in this is the beginning of a retreat on the part of Senate Democrats from a battle over energy.

A joint statement from Boxer and Kerry, who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee, where intensive, and so-far unproductive bipartisan health care negotiations have been carrying on for months, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had agreed to a delay in consideration of an energy bill. Boxer and Kerry said in their statement that their “goal is to introduce our bill later in September.”

Don’t bet big bucks. This is the classic now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t legislative legerdemain. My B.S. meter went “Woo, Woo, Woo,” and the pointer pegged off-scale when I read this story.

Here’s how it works when the leadership has decided it wants to duck a floor fight on controversial legislation. First, slow down the committee process, instructing the chairman (Boxer, in this case) to cool it for a while. Then, instruct the committee to draw out hearings and markup until the end of the session looms. Then, late in the year, acknowledge that there just isn’t enough time for full consideration of such a complicated, important bill.

That’s the climate stall-ball game the Democrats appear to me to be playing right now, and it’s no surprise. Health care is eating the Obama mandate, and, as the Washington Post reported recently, the anti-climate forces have seized the momentum. That looks like a double whammy for the donkeys, a completely unacceptable outcome. They will have to chose one issue to ride, and, as I have argued before, it will be health care.

The Energy Daily reported, “Reid previously had ordered the chairman of senate committees with jurisdiction to complete their work on the climate legislation by September 28, but his statement made no mention of a new deadline for committee action on the bill.

When queried as to when committees must wrap up their work on the measure, Reid’s spokesman said, in an e-mail: ‘As soon as possible.’”

Yep, that’s the classic waffle-straddle-gafflebag. I’ve covered Congress for more than 30 years. I have a pretty good sense of smell when it comes to waffle-making. Don’t expect Senate consideration of climate legislation in 2009.

The Republicans, with nothing to lose, called the Democrats on their game. Ranking Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, former chairman of the committee, said, on the money, “The news today — that Sen. Boxer and Sen. Kerry will delay introduction of their cap-and-trade bill — came as no surprise. The delay is emblematic of the division and disarray in the Democratic Party over cap-and-trade and health care legislation — both of which are big government schemes for which the public has expressed overwhelming opposition.”

Agree or disagree with Inhof’s views on “big government,” he certainly pinpointed the problems among the Democrats, where coal-state forces are at least as powerful as the green folks arguing for restrictions on fossil-fired generation.

What happens next is difficult to predict. The issue likely gets kicked into a 2010 election year, where coal-state legislators of both parties will probably campaign on opposition to the administration’s energy plans. I’d guess it won’t be pretty for environmentalists. In the words of the poet Randy Newman, “I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.”