House Democratic leaders have entered a tenuous new phase on energy policy and global warming legislation as they juggle competing party interests and President Obama's call for quick action on health care reform.
With the Energy and Commerce Committee's work on the bill largely finished, the focus has shifted to two other powerful panels -- the Ways and Means Committee and Agriculture Committee -- that share jurisdiction over the sweeping proposal to establish a national renewable electricity standard and a cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met yesterday to map out a strategy with Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).
Rangel confirmed his intention to formally mark up the climate bill, rather than simply offer amendments on the floor or sign off completely on the measure. "We are going to have a real, true markup," he told reporters. "It is in our jurisdiction, we owe it to the committee, and to the Congress to have a markup and to get on the floor and explain what we have done."
Rangel made waves last month when he said health care would be his top priority, even if it meant shelving the climate bill. Yesterday, Rangel maintained he remains open to action on climate -- so long as it does not block efforts to move health care.
"You can ask the question a half a dozen different ways," Rangel said. "If it is no impediment, and we get the damn thing through, and it is not going to hold us back on health care, hey, I know I said we were going to make health care the priority, I know you guys are trying to say that Pelosi changed my mind, and I am still saying health care is the priority. If we can package the energy bill so that it does not interfere with our ability to put a bill on the president's desk on health care, we will move it, so there's no reason for me not to want to do it."
Ways and Means Committee action is expected to center around provisions dealing with international trade and the auctioning of 15 percent of the allowances where the funding is dedicated toward low-income consumers. The 41-member committee includes lawmakers with a wide berth of opinions on both sections, as well as the fundamental question of whether Congress should even be dealing with the issue.
"I think it would be good if there were major changes, but I don't know if there will be," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who supports a much larger auction of emission allowances compared with the Energy and Commerce Committee's bill, H.R. 2454.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of Ways and Means' Trade Subcommittee, said he wanted to look closer at the Energy and Commerce Committee language forcing developing countries to purchase emission allowances if they do not set up their own aggressive climate policies.
Levin said the Ways and Means panel would not impede floor debate on the broader bill. "I think we need to have a frank discussion within the Ways and Means Committee first," he said. "But I don't think the intention is to be a blockade."
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said yesterday that he has urged House Democratic leaders and the Obama administration to ditch the cap-and-trade provisions until the economy picks up.
"The bill as it currently stands has a lot of defects," Davis said. "It's a better bill than when the process started. It's a better bill than it was a few weeks ago. But the reality is, my fundamental position hasn't changed. A recession, the worst GDP drop since the 1950s, is the wrong circumstance, the wrong backdrop to introduce legislation that would revolutionize the energy economy in this country."
Ways and Means Committee Republicans also are ready to pounce.
"It is a job killer," said Rep. Wally Herger of California, the second highest ranking member in terms of seniority. "It is raising taxes at the worst possible time. I'm not for raising taxes any time. But certainly not when we're in the middle of one of the most serious recessions we've had in years. I don't see much good coming of this."
"Glad to get a kick at it," added Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. "We'd be abdicating our duties if we didn't take up a bill that has such enormous revenue consequences."
As for Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat said that he remains in the "preliminary stages" of planning on the climate bill. The Agriculture Committee has not yet set a timeline or agenda, and he added that Pelosi did not give him any directives.
"The speaker, she wants to move this, but I think she understands we're going to do this right, so if it takes time to do it right, we're going to do it right," he said.
Peterson said he shared his concerns about the climate and energy bill with Pelosi, and he said other Democrats also do not plan to back down on their concerns about biofuels and indirect land use -- even though it is not directly in the climate bill. "That's got to be fixed," he said.
Pelosi "knows that I've been working on this, so I think she listened," Peterson said. "But the key is going to be whether I can work with Henry on getting some of this done."
Peterson said he is scheduled to discuss his concerns about the bill with Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) today.
Peterson and Pelosi forged a good working relationship during the back and forth on the farm bill last year, and the speaker ultimately used her power to help him advance the committee's blueprint without significant changes, even though its support for farm subsidies put her under fire from some quarters.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who sits on both the Agriculture and Ways and Means committees, suggested that the entire legislative process could be slowed until Democratic leaders deal with the farm state lawmakers. And the Agriculture Committee members cannot move forward until they resolve their concerns with biofuels and U.S. EPA, Pomeroy said.
"We need to get this straightened out before we can deal with anything else," Pomeroy said. "Frankly, we're having trouble thinking about the next step until we deal with this threat to the industry."
Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), an Agriculture Committee member who has cosponsored cap-and-trade bills in the past, said that with some negotiation, he is confident everyone can come to an agreement.
"Up to date the agriculture community and folks I represent feel like they've been left out of the discussion. ... [W]hat we're asking for is a seat at the table," said Cardoza. "But I think we can achieve it all if we sit down and have honest communication."
But Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a key moderate who helped steer passage in the Energy and Commerce Committee, said yesterday that many of the farm state lawmakers' concerns were already addressed in the legislation. As for the biofuels controversy, Boucher added, "That issue presumably could be handled rather surgically in some fashion."
Done by July 4?
House Democrats continue to wrestle with just how quickly they can get the climate bill on the floor, especially given the attention that will be given to health care and other priorities, such as appropriations bills.
"It doesn't have to be this month," Waxman said. "It could be July. But July is going to be awfully crowded with health care. We've got to get the bills to the floor and passed by the end of July. And that's our goal. Both climate and health care."
Pelosi yesterday said she has not given the Democratic committee leaders a deadline to approve their sections of the bill and sidestepped reporters' questions about whether the bill will come up before the Fourth of July.
Waxman said he backed Pelosi's decision to hold off from giving Rangel and Peterson a firm deadline. "I don't think you have to put deadlines on a referral," Waxman said. "But you have to put deadlines on discussions and get people working together."
Doggett said he supports Rangel's call to take up health care reform first. As for climate change, he acknowledged there is a limit to how long the Ways and Means Committee can consider the issue. "I'm sure [Waxman] doesn't mean we can take it forever," Doggett said. "We need to act expeditiously, but it's not going to be one of these things where you're expected to act on it overnight."
Boucher, who yesterday joined Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for a briefing on climate legislation with about 15 Senate Democrats, said he thinks House leaders are serious about efforts to move the bill before the July 4 recess.
"To do that, we'd have to have the committees conclude their work relatively shortly and so the anticipation is that's going to happen," Boucher said, adding that he would brief several Senate moderates in about two weeks at the invitation of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
But other House Democrats said they were not so sure the leadership could have everything ready for floor debate this month.
"I think it's a safer bet to be done before August," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a Ways and Means Committee member who accompanied Pelosi last week during a trip to China. "I assume it will all fall in place rather quickly," he added. "I assume it will be sooner rather than later."
Reporters Allison Winter and Ben Geman contributed.