Two powerful Senate panels are at odds over which will be the lead author on perhaps the most critical piece of the global warming bill.
Both the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Finance Committee are staking claim to the distribution of what is projected to be hundreds of billions of dollars in emission allowances for a range of industries, adding another layer of complexity to a legislative debate already rife with trap doors.
For now, the leaders of the two committees are playing nice -- at least publicly. They say they will work together on the legislation, and any disputes ultimately will get decided by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
But sources on and off Capitol Hill say Reid wants nothing to do with a parliamentary struggle that pits EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) against Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and he is pleading with them to resolve any differences should the legislation get the green light for a floor vote later this year.
After a White House meeting earlier this week with President Obama, reporters shouted a question at Baucus asking who would take the lead on allocations. But it was Reid who answered. "We are working on that now," he said. "I have heard from both Chairman Baucus and Boxer that we are working that out."
In recent interviews, Boxer and Baucus have stuck to a friendly script. Both say they plan to mark up their pieces of the allocation language before the Sept. 28 deadline that Reid set earlier this summer.
For Boxer, that means she will fold the allowance provisions into a broader cap-and-trade bill that includes greenhouse gas limits that stretch out over the next four decades. Boxer's draft bill with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is expected Sept. 8, with private briefings for senators and interest groups scheduled for later in the week. Public hearings on the legislation are expected during the week of Sept. 14, with a markup penciled in during the week of Sept. 21.
As for Baucus, the six-term senator sits in a unique position on Capitol Hill. After all, he is also the most senior Democrat on Boxer's committee, which he actually chaired from 1993-1995. And he is a leading centrist Democrat with a voice that carries tremendous weight in the leadership ranks.
Headed into September, Baucus remains square in the middle of the health care reform debate, trying to negotiate a compromise among Democrats and Republicans on the Finance Committee. Some sources say that success on health care could reap dividends for Baucus when it comes to global warming.
"If Baucus can reach a bipartisan agreement on health care he will be king of the world and Finance will likely be even more tempted to assert a major role with the added argument that it is the best place to reduce the partisan climate divide," one environmentalist tracking the debate said yesterday.
And given the Finance Committee's roster, which is chock full of moderate Democrats, Baucus' panel may be exactly the right place for dealing with the climate bill as Reid searches for the 60 votes necessary to defeat a Republican-led filibuster.
"You can't help but conclude that the Senate Finance Committee is purposely built to find a constructive center in the debate," the environmentalist added, referring to such swing votes as Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington, as well as Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Mike Crapo of Idaho.
Asked about the benefits of a markup in the Finance Committee, Kerry replied, "It might be helpful."
But Kerry also hedged his bets. "Who knows?" he added. "I think we just need to see where we are."
A problem ... or a process?
So what if the two committees do produce separate climate bills?
Kerry said it would not be a problem, citing the different Senate health care bills that are emerging from the Finance and Health committees. "You work to put them together," he said. "That's the nature of legislating. it's not unusual around here."
Boxer said she did not have a problem with Baucus weighing in either.
"I welcome all the committees to write whatever parts of the bills they feel they have jurisdiction over," she said. "So [Baucus] thinks he has jurisdiction over that. If he decides to write it, he should write it. And I'm happy to see all the committees get involved. And then Harry Reid is going to take all the bills and write his own bill."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the EPW Committee, said it would be up to both Reid and the parliamentarian to weigh in on any disputes.
"I wouldn't go so far as to characterize it as a problem," Whitehouse said. "I'd characterize it more as a process than a problem."
Yet Whitehouse also declined to say which panel he would prefer to see with the leading voice on allocations. "As long as this committee has a significant role, that's all at present I see as fair to ask for," he said. "I'm not disputing that the Finance Committee has a role. Working side by side, I think we can work our way though the uncertainties of not being on territory with established boundary lines."
Whoever writes the allocations faces a number of big decisions, not to mention demands from power plant CEOs, hunters and fishers, renewable energy companies and foreign aid workers, among others, over where the allocations should be directed.
Senate Republicans are relishing the potential for a turf war, and they appear to be goading Democrats further along into one.
Finance Committee ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on Tuesday reminded senators that the Obama administration pressed hard at the start of the year for a 100 percent auction of the emission credits -- only to back down as the House tackled the issue in the spring.
"The administration clearly has strong feelings on the topic, and this committee will soon have to draw its own conclusions on the same topic," he said.
EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) predicted Reid won't be the only one to weigh in on the allocation decision. "I don't think it goes to one person," he said. "That'll be a debate."
"All I can say is it's going to be more complicated," added Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a senior Republican on Boxer's committee.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) complained during an EPW Committee hearing yesterday about comments from Boxer and Kerry that they may not even be putting out allocation language with their draft bill in early September. "That troubles me a great deal," Bond said. "We can't leave these allocations blank, placeholders, if we're going to give Americans a fair, open and transparent view of the legislation."
Boxer said that she would release details on allocations well before the markup. "Even in the initial bill, there will be a lot of information about our thoughts on how it should go," she told reporters. "So you'll have a very good indication."
There is also speculation that any turf dispute may fizzle.
Some Senate Democratic staffers say they do not think Baucus will follow through when it comes to the climate debate because he may not be done with health care by the time Reid's Sept. 28 deadline arrives for dealing with the global warming bill.
Some see Baucus' public comments as a power play to give him more sway when the legislation comes up in the EPW Committee, which in past years was a narrowly divided panel that relied on his vote to move contentious bills. That may not be the case anymore, with Democrats holding a 12-7 advantage on the panel.
And there is some recent history on Capitol Hill that would suggest Baucus does ultimately punt.
Baucus' counterpart in the House, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), suggested for months that he would weigh in on the Energy and Commerce Committee's climate bill. But Rangel, busy with health care, opted right before the June floor debate to forgo a markup and insert his additions within the manager's amendment.
And last year, Baucus did not assert jurisdiction over the EPW Committee-approved cap-and-trade bill authored by Boxer and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). Baucus also stayed away in 2002 after the Democrat-led EPW Committee supported "four pollutant" legislation for power plants -- a bill that never made it to the floor.