Capitol Hill Democrats are expected to bypass the fast-track budget process for global warming legislation but plan to keep the option open later this year if they cannot win bipartisan support on one of President Obama's signature agenda items.
White House officials and some Democratic leaders first floated the idea last month of folding cap-and-trade legislation into a budget reconciliation bill because they remain short of the 60 votes needed to break a Senate Republican filibuster on the controversial legislation.
But a collection of moderate House and Senate Democrats and Republicans have pushed back against that approach and persuaded leadership to shelve the strategy -- for now.
"I'll put it this way: It is not included in the budget that I will present to my colleagues," Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said yesterday on ABC's "This Week." "I have said for weeks, I don't think it is the right way to write substantive legislation, because if you get into the details -- and we won't do that here -- it just doesn't work very well."
Conrad added, "But what they're -- what they're talking about ... is negotiating leverage, sending a signal that it still remains open."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also is not focused on reconciliation, according to House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.). Rahall met last week with Pelosi, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), about 10 coal-state Democrats and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts to discuss coal, climate change and the budget.
Reconciliation came up in the meeting. "But that didn't take more than 10 seconds," Rahall said. "The speaker is not worried about that at this point."
Global warming has rocketed to the top of the Capitol Hill agenda in recent weeks amid talk of inserting cap-and-trade language into a budget reconciliation bill. And some of the very moderate Democrats and Republicans needed to pass the broader authorization legislation have not been pleased.
"I'm a strong supporter of climate change legislation and continue to be," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "But this is a major policy change, and it should not be jammed through using reconciliation. We should have a full debate, and ample opportunity for a lot of different amendments."
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) last week urged Democratic leaders to use the reconciliation threat in the same way that lawmakers must take heed of climate regulations from states and cities and U.S. EPA, which has a Supreme Court ruling allowing it to write rules for motor vehicles, power plants and other industrial sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
"My message to my colleagues is we can sit here and stop at what we're doing now, and allow EPA to do it with the president's support, allow cities, allow the world to do, allow these regional networks, or we can move forward," Boxer said. "That's what I call a reality check."
Aides to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Friday that no decisions have been made on reconciliation. And Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, would not rule out the fast-track strategy on Sunday. "I don't think he took it off the table," Bernstein said on ABC. "I think it has to stay on the table. But it's something we would rather avoid."
Under budget reconciliation rules, Democrats could move cap and trade at any point during the legislative calendar under the expedited process that requires only 51 Senate votes. If they take this route, however, the program may not end up looking like its authors intended. The "Byrd Rule," for one, allows the Senate parliamentarian to strip out any provision that has no budget impact. For something as big as cap and trade, Conrad has said the final product may end up looking like "Swiss cheese."
Democrats for now appear willing to work on cap and trade through regular order, starting with a markup by Memorial Day in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. House floor action and a Senate bill are expected to follow this summer, with advocates optimistic they can win over some GOP support along the way. If not, reconciliation would return as an option.
"We may have a year or more to work through all this," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a member of the "Gang of 16," a group of moderate Democrats from the Midwest, Rust Belt and West who figure to play a pivotal role in how a cap-and-trade bill is constructed.
"I'd hope the Republicans would have a seat at the table," Pryor added. "I'd hope they'd be there in good faith. At some point, if they're just going to tear things apart and not build anything, you've got to move on. Certainly, I think it'll be a better bill if you have a lot of Republican involvement."
What will the budget resolution say?
The reconciliation fight is in some ways a sideshow to the broader budget battle, which is expected to move into a new gear this week with markups in the House and Senate budget committees. Obama wants the nonbinding document to reflect his call for a wide range of priorities, including plans to add hundreds of billions of dollars in new government revenue over the next decade from a cap-and-trade program.
"It's an economic blueprint for our future -- a vision of America where growth is not based on real estate bubbles or overleveraged banks, but on a firm foundation of investments in energy, education and health care that will lead to a real and lasting prosperity," Obama said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
To make his case for the budget, Obama and the Democratic National Committee last week began reaching out via door-to-door campaigns and some 13 million e-mail addresses collected from last year's presidential race. The president also plans to personally lobby all week for his budget blueprint, starting today with a White House event focused on energy.
Yet it is still unclear how much the budget resolution that Congress writes will actually reflect Obama's blueprint and any of his proposed specifics for a cap-and-trade plan. The White House spending plan released last month suggested specific emission targets for 2020 and 2050, a 100 percent auction of emission credits and assumed revenue of at least $650 billion over a decade that could be used for research, development and deployment on new low-carbon energy technologies, as well as tax rebates.
House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) has said he is open to including language establishing a reserve fund for revenue from a cap-and-trade program. Indeed, Senate Democrats did the same thing last year in anticipation of a floor debate over a bill from Boxer and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.).
Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), an opponent of climate language in a reconciliation bill, conceded last week that Democrats would not be out of step in leaving room for cap and trade. "They can do that with a reserve fund, and that's the traditional way we've done it around here," Gregg said.
But there is plenty of opposition on Capitol Hill -- even among Democrats -- to getting into any level of specifics on climate change when the fiscal 2010 budget document starts to move.
"This is the parameters," Rahall said. "And then we put the chairs and the couches and tables in later on."
Eight Senate Republicans on the Environment and Public Works Committee have already threatened to offer a floor amendment that would strip any mention of climate change in the budget resolution.
Several environmentalists said they welcome inclusion of climate change funding in the budget. But they have not been lobbying Democrats to use the reconciliation process for cap-and-trade legislation.
"If we can avoid a fight and save our resources for the real battle, then it's certainly in our interest to do that," said John Mimikakis, a former House Republican staffer on the Science Committee now working on climate policy for the Environmental Defense Fund.