House Democrats late Friday eked out a win on the American Clean Energy and Security Act, getting just one more vote than was necessary to pass the sweeping bill. The victory marks the first major action by the U.S. Congress to address climate change, but the narrowness of the vote suggests the fragile nature of the effort to restructure the country’s energy portfolio.
“Today the House has passed the most important energy and environment bill in our nation’s history,” said Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-authored the bill with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
The bill was approved by a vote of 219 to 212, just one vote more than the simple majority of 218 needed to pass legislation in the House. Forty-four Democrats voted against it, the vast majority representing Midwestern, Southern, coal-producing, and industrial states. (See complete list of Democrats voting “no” here.)
A number of politically vulnerable first- and second-term Democrats voted against the bill. And some Democrats from farm states joined the opposition, even after the Agriculture Committee managed to secure major concessions blocking the EPA from overseeing the carbon offset program for farmers.
And the narrow win came after much coercion from Democratic leaders in the House and White House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with a number of lawmakers who were on the fence this week, and a team of seven whips were deployed to meet with fence-sitters to allay their concerns.
Top administration officials and the president himself were also lighting up Capitol phone lines to lobby for votes. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) said he received calls from both Obama and climate czar Carol Browner asking him to support the bill, which he ultimately did. Freshman Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) also said she shifted to a “yes” vote after a chat with Obama.
At least one other Democrat who looked like a “no” vote this morning, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, declared late in the day that he would support the bill. Pushing aside concerns that Waxman-Markey is too weak, Doggett said he decided to vote for it after listening to Republican lawmakers repeatedly deny that there is a climate crisis.
“I believe there is still some hope to make improvements to this bill once it gets out of the House,” said Doggett. “Better to have a seat at the table to try to influence the change that is needed to this legislation.”
Just eight Republicans voted in favor of the measure: Mary Bono Mack (Calif.), Mike Castle (Del.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), John McHugh (N.Y.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Chris Smith (N.J), Leonard Lance (N.J), and Mark Kirk (Ill.). Without those GOP votes, the measure would have failed.
Now, to the Senate!
President Obama immediately praised the passage of the bill on Friday night, and called on the Senate to follow suit.
“Today the House of Representatives took historic action with the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act,” said Obama. “It’s a bold and necessary step that holds the promise of creating new industries and millions of new jobs, decreasing our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.”
“Now it’s up to the Senate to take the next step,” he continued.
As Grist reported earlier this week, environmental groups are already working to secure improvements in the Senate.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, issued a statement congratulating House leaders for the landmark passage. Boxer has pledged to have her own climate bill, likely based on Waxman-Markey, passed out of committee in August.
“There are very few bills that we pass that trigger so many benefits for the American people — energy efficiency, new jobs, cleaner air, healthier families, and energy independence,” said Boxer. “This bill gives us the momentum we need in the Senate, and signals that when we promised change for the better in America, we meant it.”
Senate Democrats’ last attempt to pass a climate bill failed by a large margin in June 2008, and senators have already rejected an attempt to exempt the climate bill from being filibustered. It takes 60 votes to end debate on legislation in the Senate; Democrats hold 59 seats in the Senate (60 if you count Al Franken, of course). But a number of Midwestern and Southern Democrats have expressed concerns about passing the legislation, and few observers expect more than two or three GOP lawmakers to vote for a climate bill.
Meanwhile, the energy bill approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week was significantly weaker than provisions in Waxman-Markey. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he wants every committee in the Senate to complete work on climate and energy legislation by mid-September, so there is still a good deal of time left to shape legislation before the Senate adjourns for the year in November or December.
Praise for passage rolling in
Today’s victory in the House kicked off celebrations in the environmental community.
“The House of Representatives has made a dramatic breakthrough for America’s future by choosing to create jobs, move to clean energy, and reduce global warming pollution,” said a statement from Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “While passing the bill through the House took hard work and compromises on many sides, this is strong and vital legislation that Congress needs to deliver to the President’s desk this year.”
“Today’s vote creates momentum for our country to reduce global warming pollution and advance clean energy solutions,” said Howard A. Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “We appreciate the Midwest and Great Plains legislators who stood up for the future and voted in favor of this vital legislation.”
“This bill sets the stage for the dawn of the clean energy future. While imperfect, it sets forth a set of goals America must achieve — and exceed,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
“We urged the House to pass this bill so that we could work to strengthen it before it reaches President Obama’s desk,” said Pope, emphasizing that the group wants to see the provisions dealing with old coal plants, energy efficiency, and portion of credits polluters will have to buy adjusted.
Greenpeace, however, stuck to its guns on opposing the bill as too weak. The group issued a statement from deputy campaigns director Carroll Muffett calling the “passage of the inadequate ACES bill … a victory for coal industry lobbyists, oil industry lobbyists, agriculture industry lobbyists, steel and cement industry lobbyists, among many others.”
“[I]t is a tremendous loss for the American people or for the world in our common fight to avert climate catastrophe,” said Muffett.