Apparently Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has sold both Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House on the strategy of having a mega-bill that combines climate and energy legislation. This post explains why I believe that is both a tactical and strategic mistake.

E&E News PM ($ub. req’d) reports:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) confirmed today that he will package energy and global warming measures together into one large bill for consideration later this year, a decision that should put to rest questions about whether Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have different strategies for one of President Obama’s top agenda items.

Reid gave only a one-word answer — “yes” — when asked whether he planned to wrap a cap-and-trade bill together with separate bills establishing a nationwide renewable electricity standard (RES) and promotion of a modernized grid that can improve energy efficiency, reliability and renewable energy management.

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There are three reasons this is a bad idea — two that are obvious to all, one that is apparently not. First, the climate bill is huge and complicated and uber-controversial and will be exceedingly difficult to get to Obama’s desk this year according to everybody I talk to (see here). So that means we are delaying important clean energy and smart-green grid bills that could otherwise probably get passed by the end of the summer (and quickly start help Obama meet his crucial promise of doubling renewable power in his first term):

But not everyone is on the same page.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said earlier today that he wants to mark up the energy and “smart grid” legislation next month and he still has doubts whether a cap-and-trade bill can move within the same timeframe. “I hate to see all of that sort of held hostage until we can get agreement on a cap-and-trade bill,” he told reporters today.

Second, and more importantly, the climate bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that any Congress will ever consider. You don’t want to add stuff to it that will lose votes or give people an excuse to vote against it. The RES in particular may prove unpopular with people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for the climate bill — since the whole point of a cap and trade is that you don’t force everybody to do exactly the same thing, whereas the point of the RES is that every state is being mandated to adopt the same percentage of renewable power.

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Remember, we aren’t trying to get conservative GOP votes here. That is, sadly, hopeless (see here). We are trying to keep all the conservative Democrats in line and get the few remaining swing Republicans who are open to serious climate action. The former may not like the RES or who knows what else gets stuffed in on the energy side. And at least one of those swing Republicans doesn’t seem to like this idea:

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a critical swing vote for Democrats as they pursue Obama’s agenda, said she was not aware of Reid’s new position on combining energy and climate. Even so, she said she had some concerns with the approach. “I think you have to be careful not to make things such mega-bills,” she said. “You give people plenty of reasons to vote against this.”

Third, and apparently inside-the-Beltway Democrats just don’t seem to get this — but the public and the media and most opinion makers are still stuck in the frame of mind set by the last president. Eight years of denial and muzzling of climate scientists, coupled with everybody’s obvious attention being focused increasingly on the dire economic situation for the past six months, means climate change has fallen off of the radar as a top-tier issue.

Getting the kind of strong climate legislation that will be needed to avert catastrophe will require all of the messaging skills of President Obama and his team, which are necessarily focused elsewhere for the next few months. In short, as I’ve said many times, Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010 — but only if congressional leaders work with him to make that possible. Rushing through complicated mega-bells in the next two or three months mean we will inevitably end up with a weaker bill, indeed, a too-weak bill (see here).

Here is the rest of the E&E News PM story:

As recently as last week, Reid had spoken of splitting the energy and climate items up into at least three different bills, with the energy provisions moving forward first while holding back on the global warming measure for the late summer. Reid did not elaborate today on his change of plans, and his spokesman, Jim Manley, declined further comment.

But sources tracking the Capitol Hill climate debate said Reid’s shift came after a month of intense lobbying for the one-bill strategy that originated with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Waxman first convinced House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on his approach. Pelosi, in turn, got approval from the Obama White House before pitching Reid the idea earlier this week during their weekly conference meeting.

Pelosi went public with her endorsement of Waxman’s strategy Tuesday. “I would like to see one bill, which is the energy bill with the cap and trade and the grid piece,” she told reporters. “They’re the three elements that we have to pass more fully. I’d like to see it as one bill.”

As far as timing, Pelosi and Reid have both promised floor votes this year on the global warming and energy measures, though they have been less clear about exactly when that may occur. Waxman has pledged a committee markup by Memorial Day, fueling speculation his measure could be handled by other committees that have jurisdiction on the issue and still be ready for the floor before lawmakers break for their summer recess in August.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill today would only point to Waxman’s Memorial Day schedule.

In the Senate, Reid had previously said he wanted to hold a floor debate in the spring on energy, while holding back on the climate bill until later this summer.

“This is a big beast, you can’t predict the timing,” said one former Senate Democratic aide.

Different views on one-bill strategy

There is plenty of different opinions about the one-, two- or even three-bill strategy on and off Capitol Hill.

“Personally, I think they go hand in hand,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in an interview today. “I’m very comfortable putting them together.”

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) advocated for the combination strategy as well, saying it helps lawmakers grasp the entire picture of what they are voting on. “You can adjust one in order to compensate for changes you might want to make in another,” Boucher said. “It does create a broader opportunity for balanced legislating. So I think it’s a better way to do it that way.”

Anna Aurilio, director of the Washington office of Environment America, said the logistics of the energy and climate legislation should be secondary to passing a measure as fast as possible. That said, she backs a single bill. “We want to get it done,” she said. “If it moves together, if it moves separately, we want to get it done. The urgency of solving the problem is paramount, so obviously enacting one bill is easier than enacting separate bill

… And Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) also found fault in taking energy and climate change up in one package.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” Kyl said. “And I don’t think we’re anywhere close to having the information necessary to pull all of this off. There’s a great error being made here that we really know how to make all this stuff work. It’s a bit like running the banking and financial institutions. If you’re comfortable with the way we do that, well, then maybe you’re comfortable with the way we run the energy system of the entire country. I think not.”

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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