Climate bill faces uncertain future in Senate

By Kennedy Maize

The slim passage in late June of the House Democrats’ global warming bill – 219-212 – reminds old-timers of the Clinton administration’s passage of a Btu tax in 1993 by a 219-213 vote in the House, only to see it crater in the Senate.

Is the same result likely for the Obama administration’s global warming legislation? It may happen. Indeed, it’s likely to happen, as I scope it out.

The Senate is a far more conservative legislative body than the House, meaning that it is less likely to agree to bills that have won in the House, even with large margins. That’s what the Constitution had in mind. The Senate also proportionally represents more rural areas than the House members, and more coal interests.

The narrowness of the victory of the Waxman-Markey bill (HR 2454) in the House, despite a late-in-the day spending spree of concessions to reluctant farm-state and coal-state Democrats, suggests to me that it is dead legislation walking in the Senate.

The House bill is a dog’s dinner. It is legislative hash, with something for everyone. Billions are spread around to win crucial votes. For instance, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a Chicago pol, gets a billion-dollar inner city green job training program, with a rationale that defies comprehension. But it won Rush’s vote.

Farmers got all kinds of last-minute concessions that make no policy sense. But the bill would not have passed without rural Democratic votes. In the end, 44 Democrats voted against the bill, and eight Republican voted for it. Without farm-state votes, the bill would have failed.

The July 4 issue of The Economist described the bill as “a masterpiece of obfuscation” and “so weighed down with giveaways, loopholes and needless complexity that many environmentalists hesitate to support it.” The magazine also predicted a rocky course in the Senate.

It’s clear that the original Waxman-Markey bill (gosh, only about 900 pages), which emerged from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would not have survived on the House floor, even with the large Democratic majority (275-178). According to multiple press accounts, House Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was horse-trading to line up votes on the floor as the House was voting on his committee bill. As a result, the bill grew from 900 pages to over 1,400 pages. I’d bet the ranch that nobody in the House – members or their staff (including Waxman and his aides) – had read it when it narrowly passed.

The New York Times’s John Broder, a veteran observer of how legislation in Washington works, wrote, “As the most ambitious energy and climate-change legislation ever introduced in Congress made its way to a floor vote last Friday, it grew fat with compromises, carve-outs, concessions and out-and-out gifts intended to win the votes of wavering lawmakers and the support of powerful industries.”

This is how legislative sausage is made in Washington. It’s not new. The Republicans, when they controlled the House, put the vote-timer on hold for hours (it’s supposed to be 15 minutes) while they lined up votes for a Bush-administration tax plan and beat the fields for special-interest and corporate support.

But the latest legislative peregrinations in the House, where the Democrats have a large majority, suggest problems for the Obama plan in the Senate, where the Democrats now have a nominal majority 60-vote majority (thanks to the final victory of Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota). The Democratic majority – allegedly filibuster-proof — is meaningless in the Senate, where energy and environmental issues are regional, not partisan. Franken, for example, a Paul Wellstone liberal, might bolt on a climate bill if it doesn’t favor Minnesota agriculture interests. Then there are the many Democratic senators who represent coal mining and coal burning states.

My prediction is a reprise of 1993. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee may report a bill later this year – it won’t come soon – that is vastly different than the House-passed legislation. Even given the enormous compromises in the House bill to coal (utility) and agricultural interests, that won’t mollify utility and ag interests in the Senate.

I’d bet (if I were a betting person) that the Senate won’t come up with a measure for floor passage this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada doesn’t much care about this energy stuff, as long as the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is dead (and it is). So Reid’s not going to push Obama’s energy legislation onto the agenda ahead of things he, and the White House, really care about, including health care, economic recovery, and financial regulation.

If the Obama administration were able to push its global warming agenda onto the Senate floor and get passage this year (remember, I said that’s unlikely), it probably will be very different than the House bill. That sets up a potentially long and nasty House-Senate conference committee to work out differences.

So my best guess is that the topic gets kicked into 2010, and becomes a mid-year election issue. If I were a Democrat running for House and Senate in 2010 (that would never happen), I’m not sure I’d want to be bumping up against an opponent who says my party wants to raise electric rates to combat a dubious problem. The climate hasn’t warmed in a decade.

Gridlock in Washington isn’t entirely a case of partisanship. It’s also a case of policy differences based on regional and local interests. What’s wrong with that? It looks like democracy to me.