The Make-or-Break Question on Climate Change: One Bill or Two?

March 9, 2009 10:16 am

For environmental groups that have waited nearly a decade to see meaningful action on climate change, a key choice is facing congressional Democrats: Do they tackle a cap-and-trade climate system separately from other energy issues, or do they draft one bill that includes regulation of carbon emissions as well as a new renewable electricity standard for states?

The question sounds wonkish — but it’s likely to determine whether the cap-and-trade and renewable electricity proposals can become law this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is already on board with the one-bill approach in her chamber, as Bloomberg reports today, but that makes sense for two reasons.

First, Pelosi’s nearly 80-seat margin of control in the House makes the task of passing a combined energy-environment package much easier for her than for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV); second, climate change and energy are both controlled by the same House committee, the Energy and Commerce panel chaired by the influential progressive Henry Waxman (D-CA).

As Politico notes today, Waxman is facing a possible hiccup if Charles Rangel’s (D-NY) Ways and Means Committee decides to push its own carbon tax plan, but Pelosi is sure to remain confident in his ability to steer a massive dual bill to passage. In the Senate, matters are much different — the energy committee, chaired by Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), has jurisdiction over renewable electricity, while the environment panel led by Barbara Boxer (D-CA) takes the lead on climate change.

Does that mean passing both issues in one Senate bill would be impossible?It may well make both renewable electricity and cap-and-trade no heavier a lift than they were during the last Congress, when both succumbed to filibusters.

And these weren’t the easy-to-pigeonhole, GOP-only type of filibusters, either: Democratic senators such as Sherrod Brown (OH) and Carl Levin (MI) remain skeptical of a cap-and-trade climate bill, while midwestern Dems such as Blanche Lincoln (AR) and Mary Landrieu (LA) are potential no votes on renewable electricity. If the two proposals are combined in one bill, that makes the work of reaching 60 senators in favor all the more difficult.

Bingaman would “like to see an energy bill come first,” his spokesman told me. “The renewable electricity standard and other advanced energy technologies, he sees them setting up the cap-and-trade bill. It would be easier to legislate on climate … if you have energy-related items already legislated.”

As for Boxer, she indicated in a statement to TPMDC that she is open to any means for taking up a climate change bill this year, including the filibuster-proof tactic of budget reconciliation and a dual energy-environment package:

There are many ways for us to tackle global warming. A global warming bill integrated with energy legislation is one option. A stand-alone bill, using the Clean Air Act, and the budget reconciliation process are other options. The important thing is that we get the job done and do what is necessary to avoid the ravages of unchecked global warming.

Of course, the ultimate decision may not rest with either Senate chairman. If the House sends over a bill that pairs renewable electricity with climate change, Reid will make the call on splitting the two issues up or attempting to tackle them together. And when Greenwire asked the leader if he wanted to follow Pelosi and do a two-for-one, he said simply, “Yes.”

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