Muckraker: Grist on Politics

It’s looking increasingly likely that Congress is going to move one unified climate and energy bill through both chambers this year, rather than breaking it out into several pieces. But while some are cheering this as a way to expedite the process, others on the Hill are skeptical of the chances of passing one giant bill in 2009, and worry that it might slow progress on other energy measures that might be an easier sell.

House leadership seems solidly behind the idea of moving a single bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking at an event on March 3, pledged to have “an energy bill that goes farther” by including the cap-and-trade and grid components. “I’d like to see it as one bill. I don’t know if that will be how it comes forth legislatively from the Senate, but I think having it as one bill shows the integrity, the oneness of it all, how it all relates to each other.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-N.M.) first announced that he intended to move three separate pieces of legislation — one on renewables and efficiency, one on transmission, and then a bill to cap emissions. But late last week he changed his tune, signaling that he will look to move one package that includes all three measures.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is upping the pressure on Congress to pass some kind of climate legislation this year, hoping to make the matter more urgent for a body that has been slow to take up the issue in the past.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski are working together on an energy bill, which Bingaman has said will likely include his Renewable Electricity Standard proposal and efficiency measures. Though an RES measure that Bingaman proposed in 2007 failed, he seems more confident that it will win approval this year.

There also seems to be confidence among Senate leaders that they could pass legislation on transmission and upgrades to the electricity grid. Reid is sponsoring a bill that would give the federal government greater authority in siting electrical transmission lines around the country, and would allow the president to designate “renewable energy zones,” though that bill met with some resistance in a hearing on Thursday. Bingaman is also sponsoring a transmission component.

But Bingaman, whose committee has jurisdiction on these issues, doesn’t think that the energy measures would pass if they were linked to a measure to cap carbon emissions.

“My view has been that we have reasonable consensus on quite a few things we can do to meet our energy challenge,” Bingaman told reporters last week. “I think that it’s worthwhile to get that done separate from a cap-and-trade system. I’d hate to see that held hostage while we wait to pass cap-and-trade.”

Cap-and-trade, at this point, is “not ready for prime time,” Bingaman said.

Reid’s office did not respond to inquiries about the Majority Leader’s reasons for wanting to move a unified bill. While there’s surely some strategy behind the change, one is not immediately apparent at this point.

Dan Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, said he’s confident that Reid will choose to move legislation in the most politically feasible way, and could very well revert to favoring separate bills. “The bottom line is, if Harry Reid decides this is the best way to approach it, those are based on conversations with real senators, the kind of conversations that none of us in the media or outside groups are capable of having,” said Weiss. “He’s decided that this is the best approach, but it’s very possible that down the road he could shift gears in order to get it done.”

Weiss noted that the way the legislation is packaged is less important than whether or not Congress as a whole is prepared to address the problem of climate change.

“The real question is whether the political urgency is going to catch up with the scientific urgency,” said Weiss. While the Obama administration, Pelosi, Reid, Environmental and Public Works Chair Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and Energy and Environment Subcommittee chair Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have been vocal supporters of moving climate legislation as soon as possible, said Weiss, “It’s unclear if that urgency is shared by enough other people in either body.”

Of course, the Senate is likely to be a tougher sell on passing climate and energy legislation, whether it is packaged into one bill or not. RES has failed previously, and last year’s Climate Security Act failed to muster enough votes to reach cloture. Democrats currently have 58 seats, but it’s not guaranteed that all of them would vote for legislation. Ten Dems sent a letter to leadership last year explaining why they wouldn’t have voted in favor of final passage of last year’s bill, and up to 16 of them are already staking out their concerns about an as-yet non-existent new Senate bill.

They’d also likely need at least two Republican votes, and opposition to climate legislation is mounting with even those who have in the past said they’d be willing to support a cap-and-trade plan. Earlier this week, Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who voted to move forward on last year’s bill, bashed the climate change components included in the budget proposal from the Obama administration. He was joined in his skepticism on Wednesday by Environment and Public Works Committee member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who told reporters, “I’m open, as are several Republicans, to cap-and-trade, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to think about it in the middle of a recession.”

There also remains an outside chance that Senate leaders will attempt to shuffle climate legislation in through the budget reconciliation process, which Reid has acknowledged as a possibility (though some of his Democratic colleagues are balking at that prospect). Under normal Senate rules, a cap-and-trade bill would need 60 votes to end debate and move to a final action, but the budget reconciliation only requires 51 votes. “Certainly that’s an alternative,” Reid told reporters on Thursday. “I love 51 compared to 60.

On the House side, both Waxman and Pelosi say they plan to have a bill passed out of committee by Memorial Day, and approved by the full chamber before the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen in mid-December. “That is all possible,” said Pelosi, but added, “I can only answer for the House of Representatives. I know that we can get this job done.”

A Pelosi aide told Grist that leadership believes the integrated bill might actually help it garner more support in the House, with the energy and grid elements providing incentive for more representatives — specifically, Republicans — to vote for it. “Our goal here is to make this a bipartisan process here in the House, so that we have as much buy-in as possible,” said the aide.

Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesperson for Ed Markey, said that including the energy measures in the climate bill would also help meet the goal of cutting emissions, noting an RES and efficiency standards as key elements of curbing climate change. “The important part is that in the end we have the most effective bill possible that will cut emissions in the most aggressive manner and create jobs,” said Burnham-Snyder.

Markey has already introduced legislation on RES and efficiency, which the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment that he chairs would take the lead on. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has said he plans to introduce a bill on transmission in the next few weeks as well, and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said on Tuesday that he plans to reintroduce his 2008 bill to fund carbon capture and sequestration technology for coal-fired power plants.

Burnham-Snyder said at this point, it’s not entirely clear which of these legislative measures the Energy and Commerce Committee will focus on first.

David Hawkins, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, also favored moving a combined bill, noting that it puts the concepts of an RES or efficiency into the context of the greater goal — moving away from reliance on carbon-based fuel sources. “These are two sides of the same coin,” said Hawkins. “We’ve had a number of years of experiments with moving energy legislation without considering climate, and we wind up doing things where we’re spending tax payer dollars on dirty energy sources and on clean energy sources.”

But Frank Maisano, who represents the energy industry at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, thinks “smashing it together” would be a risky move in terms of both the politics and the policy. “There are a lot of complexities with putting everything together like that,” said Maisano. “This is a difficult bill. Congress has to do its homework to get it done right.”

House leaders say they intends to have their climate change legislation — with or without the energy components — ready to go to the floor by June. Reid has estimated that the Senate bill will be ready to go by the end of the summer. In any case, expect at least a few hot months of debate on how and what the two chambers will be able to pass.