The Senate last night all but closed the door on the possibility of passing climate change legislation through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.
The Senate approved, 67-31, an amendment from Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) to the fiscal 2010 budget resolution that would put major hurdles in the use of reconciliation for the purposes of moving a cap-and-trade bill.
Twenty-six Democrats voted with almost all Senate Republicans in favor of the amendment. For Democrats, the vote ties the hands of senators still eyeing the reconciliation option. From the Republican perspective, it sends a strong message that the majority of the Senate is simply not interested in such a strategy that would allow a cap-and-trade bill to pass with a simple majority vote.
"Tonight an overwhelming majority of the U.S. Senate slammed the door on using the fast-track process to jam through a new national energy tax," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "This is good news for families, taxpayers and job creators."
Technically, the Johanns amendment does not completely eliminate the possibility of using reconciliation. It states only that the reserve fund for climate and energy legislation in the budget resolution cannot be used if climate change is moved through the reconciliation process. That means the revenues created by a federal cap-and-trade program could then not be used as offsets for federal spending; without further cuts the language would violate the budget resolution.
The violation of the budget resolution rules could be waived with a 60-vote point of order, but that essentially wipes out the main benefit of using the filibuster-proof reconciliation process in the first place.
Many top Democrats -- including Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) -- had repeatedly said that they do not believe reconciliation is an appropriate way to move such legislation.
But Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats refused to take the move off the table, and Republicans hammered Democrats all week for including reconciliation instructions on health care and education in the House version of the bill, which could potentially be used to move a climate change bill.
"Budget reconciliation was designed to reduce the deficit, it was never designed to pass complex legislation such as climate change," Johanns said before the vote.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) offered an alternate amendment that said the budget process could not be used to move climate change legislation, unless lawmakers find that it had a positive impact on the country's economy, environment and energy security. The proposal was aimed at probing Democrats with an alternative to the Johanns language.
"Why would we start down this road of taking a legal Senate procedure off the the table?" Boxer said on the floor.
Those pleas, however, fell on mostly deaf ears even among some of Boxer's Democratic colleagues as more than a dozen members of her party voted against the amendment, which failed, 42-56. The Senate approved the Johanns amendment moments later.
The 26 Democrats who supported the Johanns amendment are: Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Russ Feingold (Wis.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Mark Warner (Va.), Robert Casey (Pa.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Jim Webb (Va.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Claire McCaskill (Mo.).
Senate energy amendments
The Senate also passed, 98-0, an amendment from Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) that would have created a 60-vote point of order against legislation that raises taxes on families earning under $250,000 -- a proposal aimed in largely at what Republicans say are the tax increases associated with climate change legislation.
Ensign framed his amendment as following through on a pledge President Obama made during his February speech to Congress that taxes will not increase for middle-income taxpayers.
In other energy matters, the Senate approved by voice vote an amendment from Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would boost funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from $3.2 billion to $5.1 billion -- the same amount that the federal government spent on the program during this fiscal year.
And Democrats continued to beat back GOP efforts to modify the resolution by defeating two separate amendments that aim to freeze discretionary spending and others dealing with long-term debt and tax policy.
The Senate is poised to hold another long string of votes on amendments -- the traditional "vote-a-rama" -- later today, with Democratic leaders hoping to complete the bill by the end of the day.
House set to pass budget bill today
The House is also expected to wrap up its work on the budget resolution by the end of the day.
Lawmakers started debate on the resolution last night but no votes are set to take place until later today. Though the House debate is certain to be much shorter than the weeklong Senate fight, Republicans are poised to raise some of the same concerns over the Democrats' blueprint -- pointing to what they see as excessive spending and the potential to fast-track major legislative items.
House and Senate Republicans met yesterday morning to discuss their message in the budget and afterward House Republicans rolled out their budget plan.
Among other items, the House GOP budget would freeze non-defense discretionary spending, cancel the spending authorized by the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that Congress approved earlier this year along with a number of other tax policy and spending provisions that aim to cut the federal budget deficit.
House Democrats described the GOP's proposal as impractical, saying it contained a number of cuts to spending programs that not only had zero chance of becoming law but would even be rejected by some Republicans. "[Their budget] calls for some substantial cuts that are so enormous that they strain credulity," House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) told reporters yesterday.