Efforts to pass global warming legislation during President George W. Bush's two terms focused almost exclusively on the Senate, to no avail.
With Barack Obama now in the White House, the spotlight has shifted to the Democrat-led House, where rules favoring a simple majority have advocates optimistic they can break the lengthy stalemate that has engulfed the controversial climate policy debate.
"Maybe this time, trying a different order will shake things up a bit," said House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.).
House action will take a significant step forward tomorrow when Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and his top lieutenant, Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), release a draft bill that will be the centerpiece of the upcoming legislative battle.
The Democrats' bill is expected to call for a cap-and-trade system that curbs midcentury U.S. emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels, coupled with a suite of additional programs, including a national electricity standard for renewables and stronger federal mandates on energy efficiency.
With committee votes on their legislation expected in May, the stakes could not be higher for Waxman and Markey as they head into negotiations with their fellow Democrats and any interested Republicans. Obama's overall agenda is increasingly being questioned for trying to take on too much amid the largest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. And public opinion polls show global warming continues to rank near the bottom of the list of concerns for American voters.
For now, the Obama administration is willing to let the debate play itself out in the House, where the political dynamics favor passage in the 435-seat chamber even though the long-term prospects remain murky in the Senate. U.S. EPA -- which has a two-year-old Supreme Court mandate clearing it to write climate rules -- has quietly been helping Waxman with technical support on his draft legislation.
Speaking last month with reporters, Waxman acknowledged that his work could even help jump-start debate on the other side of Capitol Hill. "A bill that will emerge from our committee is a bill that I think can pass the House and may well be a model for the Senate," Waxman said. "But don't tell them I said that, because they'll want to do their own bill and see us in conference. That's fine, too. That's the regular way we accomplish things here."
The one-bill strategy
The Energy and Commerce Committee will be the first big test for an issue that could become a central battleground for the 2010 midterm elections.
Democrats hold a 36-23 advantage over Republicans, meaning the chairman can only lose votes from six of his own members and still pass the bill absent any surprise GOP defections. A handful of moderate Republicans are expected to show interest in the issue, but the party's leaders and most rank-and-file members have already switched into opposition mode, dubbing the Obama-led climate proposal an expensive new tax on households and businesses.
For House Democrats, the goal is unity.
In a letter sent to Obama on Friday, Waxman and Markey secured support for their effort from two critical voices in the climate and energy debate: former full committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and former subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.).
"We represent different regions of the country and approach energy issues from different perspectives, but we are united in the view that now is the time for Congress to pass energy and climate legislation," the congressmen wrote Obama.
The lawmakers' letter suggested they would be doing some hard bargaining in the coming weeks to win over their own members -- a recognition of sorts to Obama's own pledge to take into account both regional and economic concerns for a climate bill. But the Waxman-Markey draft is likely to punt on some key issues, including how to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in emission allowances.
Boucher said last week that he expects to resolve any differences by the Memorial Day target that Waxman has set for a committee markup. Other Democratic committee members from industrial districts say they are ready to negotiate with their panel's leaders. "As long as they don't try to just run over us, we can work things out," said Rep. Gene Greene (D-Texas), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Going forward, Waxman and Markey are banking on a combined energy and climate bill to build support for their legislation. Aides explain that the measure offers a new way of thinking compared with previous and more limited attempts in the Senate. The economic models, for example, will show that combining cap-and-trade legislation with an RES and the energy efficiency programs can lower compliance costs for households and industry.
The Democrats also plan to appeal to their colleagues with the argument that costs to the U.S. economy by not acting to curb emissions is something that many earlier studies failed to account for. "A benefit of going first is a lot of the stale economic arguments ... will no longer apply," said a House Democratic aide working on the climate and energy bill.
Warnings of a 'radical' House bill
There is a sense of pride among some House Democrats that they are going before the Senate this time.
"We're in a lot stronger position than the Senate, and I'm not just talking about the rules," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "I'm talking about leadership and capacity. The speaker has been amazing on this for what, two-and-a-half years, and that gives us a real leg up."
"Frankly, if you want to get something done, why wouldn't you start off where you're procedural setting is the strongest, where the politics are the strongest, and where the substance, the most expert staff, is located?" added a former Democratic aide to the Energy and Commerce Committee. "You've got three reasons to do it that way. It makes sense. How many times have we seen a bill written first in the Senate and become law?"
Across Capitol Hill, senators are keeping a close eye on Waxman's panel. Senate committee leaders, including Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), met earlier this month to discuss strategy with Waxman and Markey. They welcome the House's effort as a signal of what is possible to accomplish while insisting that their efforts will also be original.
"We're going to do our continued work here," Kerry said. "I don't know if backseat is the right word. We're sort of both driving in the same direction."
The House's work may even help color in the battle lines.
"I see a lot of similarities in the House and Senate's reactions to cap and trade and a comprehensive energy bill," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a congressman for 10 years before winning the Senate seat last fall. "You have regional and state interests that are reflected in both bodies."
Some Senate Republicans warned the House Democrats' finished product could poison the debate.
"It could work the other way around," said Senate Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a congressman from 1981-1989. "A bill coming out of the House could be very radical."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also a former congressman, said he has no plans to be a rubber stamp for what comes out of the House. "Henry Waxman isn't known for bipartisan legislation," Graham said. "And the Senate will not get a cap-and-trade bill that doesn't have some serious bipartisan buy in. You don't need that in the House. So the product that comes from the House invariably is a winner-take-all bill. And the product that comes from the Senate that gets 60 votes has to be a bipartisan compromise."
Blumenauer dismissed the Republicans' concerns that the House bill will not be realistic. "I think people who are looking for excuses to not be responsible can find excuses," he said. "But it will not be a radical bill that goes through the House."
Several House Democrats insisted that they are cognizant of the Senate dynamics, where three times over the last eight years floor votes fell well short of the 60-vote tally needed to defeat a filibuster.
"We probably can't move forward if there's a feeling that we're simply passing a bill that the Senate will never act on," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas). "We have to send the Senate a stronger bill than it ultimately approves. But there has to be a feeling that the Senate can come together and approve something."